Cans line the shelves of the St. Louis Dream Center / Photo by Bethany Prange
If you didn’t know better, you may think this was a small grocery store.
Though there are only three aisles, each aisle is lined with shelves full of foods you might see at any grocer – from canned veggies and meat to boxes of macaroni and cheese.
That “grocery store” feeling is exactly what the staff at the St. Louis Dream Center was hoping for when they started their food pantry.
Some people find it embarrassing or difficult to ask for help, even when they’re in dire need of food assistance, says Jeremy Pickens, food ministry coordinator at the St. Louis Dream Center.
By designing a clean, modern front office and a pantry where clients get to choose their food, the Dream Center strives to make clients as comfortable as possible.
Since the pantry feeds between 1,500 and 2000 individuals a month, it’s a steady job just keeping the shelves full of food.
The pantry receives 75 percent of its food from the St. Louis Area Foodbank, Pickens says. It’s rare that food stays on the shelves for very long.
“Even the figs only lasted maybe three months,” Pickens says, noting that even a product like dried figs, which many people aren’t familiar with, fly off the shelves.
The Dream Center, an outreach of Joyce Meyer Ministries, does more than just operate a food pantry. The church operates 33 different outreach ministries, from a street ministry to help the homeless to a soup kitchen and an Adopt-A-Block community betterment program.
The Dream Center also runs a successful after-school feeding program that provides almost 900 children with a guaranteed meal every weekday.
Five days a week, Dream Center volunteers bag up a hot meal, a juice box and a small snack. Bus drivers from nine local schools hand out the meals to children in need as they get off the bus. For many of these kids, this meal is the only one they’ll eat until the next day when they get lunch at school, Pickens says.
“By the look on their faces, you can tell they’re really hungry,” Pickens says.
So far in 2012, the Dream Center food pantry has provided more than 300,000 meals, and it seems that number will continue to grow.
In January 2012, the pantry served 38,000 meals in a month. Just months later, in August 2012, the pantry served 61,000 meals.
“I think its need,” Pickens says. “We’ve seen a lot of first time clients.”
On any given pantry day – every day but Thursdays – Pickens speculates that 25 percent of the clients are first-time visitors to a food pantry.
Clients who visit the pantry are a mix of unemployed adults and people classified as the working poor – those who have jobs but don’t make enough to provide the necessities. Many who visit the Dream Center pantry are senior citizens.
In their neighborhood in North St. Louis, the Dream Center has become a community gathering place for both those in need, and those wanting to help. The tithes and offerings from the Dream Center’s church fund the ministries, with help from Joyce Meyer Ministries.
Most of the work is done by volunteers, and fortunately, the Dream Center has plenty of adults willing to help out.
Many volunteers go on to get jobs in the community, Pickens says.
One gentlemen was unemployed and living with his five children in an abandoned house. He came to the Dream Center for help and began volunteering.
“He treated it as a full-time job,” Pickens says. “His work here led to a full-time job at St. Vincent de Paul.”
Many of the volunteers at the Dream Center could use food assistance as much as the pantry clients, but most don’t take it because they feel others need it more, Pickens says.
Toiletries are so in demand that when the Dream Center staff gave small boxes of toiletries as prizes at a staff holiday party, the volunteers were overjoyed.
“It was amazing to see volunteers’ eyes light up when they get a $5 basket,” Pickens says.