Feeding the Hungry: Local organizations go through many channels to stock bare cupboards

When it comes to grocery shopping, everything you need never seems to be in one place. The supermarket supplies your baking basics, but it’s the farmers’ market that has the produce your recipes require. A visit to the bakery is mandatory, as is a stop at your favorite wine shop for that special-occasion vintage. Even when the retail stores close, stranding you without the milk you forgot to buy but so desperately need, you still have choices: the gas station or the 24-hour pharmacy.

Many St. Louis households, however, have fewer alternatives. Instead of shopping supermarkets for bargains, these needy families search the shelves of area charities for basic necessities. But who supplies the hunger-relief agencies? Who feeds the hungry in St. Louis?

Food distribution warehouses

St. Louis Area Foodbank

If you are one of the more than 40,000 St. Louis-area residents a week who rely on hunger-relief agencies to supply all or some of your food, odds are at least part of your meals come from the St. Louis Area Foodbank. In the mid-’70s, local medical, religious and social service leaders founded St. Louis’ first food-distribution warehouse, The Food Crisis Network, in an effort to reduce the high incidence of low-birthweight babies in the city, said Frank Finnegan, SLAFB’s executive director. After teaming with Catholic Charities 10 years later, FCN changed its name to the SLAFB and expanded its scope to better serve a growing population of hungry citizens.

Today, said Finnegan, who has headed the agency for half of its 30-year history, SLAFB feeds a community defined not by low birthweight but by low income. “We find that most of the people that we provide food to are the working poor and the elderly,” said Finnegan. Many working poor, he added, are families with children.

SLAFB’s clients live in 26 St. Louis area counties – 14 in eastern Missouri and 12 in southwestern Illinois. “Basically, it’s the entire metropolitan area and the surrounding rural counties,” said Finnegan. “It’s about an 80-mile radius around St. Louis.” Of the 315,000 people living in poverty in SLAFB’s service area, about 43,000 receive assistance each week from one of the 500 agencies SLAFB supplies, according to a 2001 national study from America’s Second Harvest, the country’s largest organization of emergency food providers.

An outfit of only 23 employees, SLAFB depends on 5,000 annual volunteers to man its two warehouses. The 15,000-square-foot processing facility in Overland and 30,000-square-foot distribution building in St. Louis house up to 13.5 million pounds of food a year, said Finnegan. Refrigerated trucks, either contracted or owned by SLAFB, make multiple stops daily to the St. Louis site to drop off pallets of food.

Starting at 8 a.m. weekday mornings, representatives from St. Louis city and county hunger-relief agencies wheel their shopping charts through SLAFB’s stores. Some agencies phone, fax or send in via the distribution warehouse’s Web site their weekly food requests, then pick up their orders. On Fridays, however, most agencies prefer to peruse SLAFB’s ever-changing wares, said Finnegan.

America’s Second Harvest, which solicits donations directly from food manufacturers on behalf of SLAFB, acquires the bulk of the warehouse’s invoice. “We never know one week to the next what we’re going to get,” said Finnegan of the food donations, which are often unpopular or irregular comestibles from food-industry goliaths such as Procter & Gamble, Kraft and ConAgra. Sometimes a failed marketing campaign can mean a windfall for the Foodbank. Finnegan said, “Nobody saw the movie [‘Hulk’]. Nobody liked the movie, so the cereal [with the Hulk on the box] didn’t sell. We received a couple of trailer loads of the ‘Hulk’ breakfast cereal, which was just Cheerios.”

Although the brands available at SLAFB may vary, the type of food SLAFB offers remains fairly constant, he said. “We typically have items that have a shorter shelf span: snacks, cookies, crackers, new product introductions and seasonal items.” Canned goods, which used to be a warehouse staple, have become a rarity in recent years. “We don’t get a lot of canned goods because they are easy to sell,” said Finnegan. Instead of donating canned goods, he said, many food manufacturers sell the items at a discount to closeout, odd-lot and dollar stores for profit.

The warehouse’s most nutritious foods, such as canned goods, meats and fresh and frozen produce, he said, come from SLAFB purchases, food drives and the Department of Agriculture, with whom the warehouse is under contract as the sole nonprofit distributor of the USDA’s products in eastern Missouri and southwestern Illinois.

Donations from the public supply the SLAFB with about half of its yearly earnings. Sources such as the state of Missouri and the state of Illinois, as well as the United Way, also make up a significant amount of SLAFB’s $2.5 million revenue. For every donated dollar, 97 cents is spent on getting food to those who need it, said Finnegan. The accomplishment helped earn SLAFB a Wise Giving Alliance accreditation from the Better Business Bureau and a four-star rating from nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator.

Operation Food Search

Unlike the SLAFB, Operation Food Search, St. Louis’ only other major food-distribution warehouse, has no USDA contracts, doesn’t receive state or federal funding and isn’t a member of the United Way or America’s Second Harvest. Why does OFS refuse outside support? Simply put, the organization doesn’t want it, said Sunny Schaefer, the nonprofit’s executive director for 10 years. “We like to keep our organization simple,” she said. “We want to remain independent.”

To stay afloat, OFS relies on the public and the business community that founded it, said Schaefer. She credited former food-distribution mogul Ted Wetterau, supermarket franchise head Roger Dierberg and urban redevelopment activist Monsignor Salvatore Polizzi for creating OFS in 1981 as the answer to the problem of unnecessary waste along St. Louis’ main food-distribution drag, Produce Row.

Twenty-four years after OFS’s creation, more than 900 grocery stores, restaurants and food-manufacturing companies help fulfill the organization’s mission to “provide individuals in need with food and other basic necessities” and “help alleviate the burden of hunger and its consequences.” Contributions from the area’s most prominent food and beverage franchises, including Schnucks, Dierbergs, Pizza Hut, Red Lobster, Panera Bread, Pepsi-Cola, Sysco and U.S. Foodservice stock OFS’s 25,000-square-foot warehouse in
University City.

“This year, we’ve been averaging 1.8 million pounds of food and other household items per month,” said Schaefer of OFS’s warehouse inventory. Donations, however, are dwindling. “Over the years, it’s been more difficult to access food donations because the food industry has become a lot more efficient in their inventory controls, so they’re not making the overruns and the [production] mistakes they once did,”
said Schaefer.

When companies call OFS with a donation, the nonprofit organization must act fast. “About 60 percent of all the food we distribute is perishable,” said Schaefer. As many as three refrigerated trucks and two vans transport the donations from the contributing companies to the OFS warehouse. Once they arrive, 11 employees and 1,000 annual volunteers prepare the goods for distribution to OFS’s 300 partner agencies. “The agencies will get anywhere from 25 to 50 cases of assorted items depending on what we have,” said Schaefer. OFS regulates the quantity and assortment of products their agencies receive and schedules when agencies receive them. “[The agencies] may come in once or twice a week,” she said. “Every Tuesday and Thursday we do a perishable distribution. Every other week, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we do a nonperishable distribution.”

OFS’s stores feed approximately 95,000 people in 30 Illinois and Missouri counties every month, according to OFS reports. It’s no cheap feat. Last year, the nonprofit distributed 20 million pounds of food and household items on slightly more than $1 million of revenue. Like SLAFB, OFS boasts a four-star Charity Navigator rating. But even the best efforts to attack hunger, however, sometimes seem ineffectual, said Schaefer. “It’s always a challenge to get enough food. We never really meet the need in the community.”

Food pantries

Before Operation Food Search and St. Louis Area Foodbank existed, neighborhood organizations, like St. Cronan Catholic church, sponsored food pantries to support community members in need. They still do. A 127-year-old institution on South Boyle Avenue, St. Cronan has sponsored a food pantry for so long, parishioners can only guess when it began, said the church’s food pantry coordinator, Kathy Hunn, who took over the position two years ago, succeeding her husband in the post. The part-time job is a demanding one: “My job is to make sure there’s food on our shelves to give our clients; to make sure we have adequate volunteers to man the food pantry.”

If St. Cronan and other direct-service agencies relied solely on food-distribution warehouses for support, their pantry shelves would go bare, said Hunn. Once the hundreds of other St. Louis food pantries, soup kitchens, day cares, churches and shelters have “shopped” the major suppliers, she said, dented cans and expired foodstuffs abound, but few comestibles remain. “[The food-distribution warehouses] might have shelves brimming with something, but it might be juice drink, or it might be kitchen cleanser,” she said. To supplement the shortage, St. Cronan improvises.

Parishes from around the area regularly donate food and staff to St. Cronan’s pantry. St. Gerard Majella donates large quantities of food to the pantry on a regular basis, and St. Dominic Savio provides St. Cronan with both food and the invaluable gift of weekly volunteers. A group of women at Immacolata parish donate their time through their St. Vincent de Paul Society as well. “They call me once a month and ask, ‘What do you need in the way of groceries?’” said Hunn. “I tell them what I need, and they go out and shop for me.”

St. Cronan’s congregation pitches in as well. Food donation requests announced during services or in the church newsletter keep parishioners abreast of pantry needs. A food collection bin in the back of the church allows the parish to fulfill them.

Hunn estimated that a team of about 35 volunteers distributes 3,500 to 3,800 items to as many as 75 hungry families per month. Each family receives a bag of items: canned goods, dried goods, a breakfast food and the option to get extras like shampoo and toilet paper. “How many bags a family receives depends on the family’s size,” said Hunn. “A family of two people would only get one bag twice a month. We don’t look at ourselves as being the sole source of [the clients’] food. We look at ourselves as being a supplement.”

Food drives

The leaders of St. Louis’ hunger-relief organizations agree that without the public’s assistance, their agencies would fail. Donations, particularly the bulk contributions from food drives, provide priceless support when federal funding is low and corporate gifts are few. Most food-drive efforts go unnoticed by the general populace. “Schools and offices have food drives all time, but if you didn’t attend school or work there or know somebody who attends school or works there, you’d never know,” said Finnegan. Hunger-relief agencies, however, feel the positive impact of even the smallest donation, he said. And when communities band together to pull off one the biggest food drives in the city, the Boy Scouts of America’s Scouting for Food Campaign, the benefits are colossal.

The far-reaching influence of Scouting for Food is the fulfillment of the food-drive founders’ dream, said Joe Mueller, director of public relations of the Boy Scouts of America Greater St. Louis Area Council. Members of the local Boy Scout Council, he said, are responsible for the now national campaign: “The leadership of the Boy Scout Council [of St. Louis] went to the United Way 21 years ago and asked them, ‘What is the greatest need in our community?’ They said that there was a huge need in the food pantries, so that’s where we came up with the idea of a one-day canned food drive.”

The idea evolved into a two-day event, which took place this year on Nov. 12 and 19. On the first Saturday, Boy Scouts and other volunteers distributed more than one million bags to 37 counties, some as far away as Lincoln County and the Arkansas border in eastern Missouri to Marion and Carbondale in southern Illinois. The bags, said Mueller, serve a tri-fold purpose: to hold the food donation, to promote the event and to instruct contributors on how to give.
One week later, the Boy Scout troops and their helpers come out in full force. “There’s probably close to 100,000 people working,” said Bell of bag-collection day. Together with parents, siblings and other neighborhood assistance, Scouts collected 1.9 million cans this year. After collecting the bag from donating houses, the Scouts transfer the goods to area fire stations that warehouse the food, while still more volunteers, many of them senior citizens and older Scouts, box the donations for transport to the SLAFB.

In recent years, however, unforeseeable obstacles have made Scouting for Food more difficult to execute. Gas prices skyrocketed. The Army Reserve, the longtime transporter of Scouting for Food donations, was deployed to Iraq. Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, which stretched charitable giving to its limits. Despite such personal woes, in times of crisis, community members must support the charities that help those in dire need. “They have channeled a lot of resources to the Gulf, now we need to help the Food Bank and its network of pantries restock its shelves,” reminded Muller.