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St. Louis Area Foodbank is hoping for an end-of-year surge in donations

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 26, 2010 - The St. Louis Area Foodbank is counting on a late-December surge in holiday donations to meet its fundraising projections of $3 million for the year, says Frank Finnegan, the nonprofit agency's executive director.

Contributions in November and December usually bring in about 60 percent of total annual contributions from individuals, he said. While the agency met its $500,000 projection for November, year-to-date donations toward its $700,000 December goal are running about $50,000 behind.


Overall, the foodbank has seen a decline in the number and amount of individual gifts, which account for about $2 million of total donations, Finnegan said.

"We're hoping the mail returns will be good,'' he said. "And corporations and foundations have been very generous and good to us this year. They have picked up some of the slack.''

Finnegan said that donors are still feeling the pressure of the economic downturn, which isn't surprising since the unemployment rate continues to hover at just under 10 percent.

"When you look at the average donation from an individual -- about $50 or $55 -- if we're going to bring in more than $2 million, that's a lot of checks,'' he said. "It's a little bit of a rollercoaster ride this year. The need has not decreased. I will not say that it's higher this month than it was three months ago. But it's not decreasing either. And that's the scary part.''

As the Beacon reported in the spring, 2010 marked the 35th anniversary for the foodbank, which continues to expand its efforts to feed the hungry in 26 counties in Missouri and Illinois. Since 2007, when the agency moved to a new facility in Earth City, it has doubled food distribution from 12 million pounds a year to 24 million pounds in 2010. The agency's goal is to increase distribution to 30 million pounds by 2015. Food pantries served by the agency feed about 57,000 people a week.

Finnegan said that unemployment has added additional clients to a base that in the past was predominantly comprised of the working poor and elderly.

"Ten to 15 years ago, as we started to see a shift in manufacturing jobs and the switch to a more service economy, we started to see significant increases in the working poor -- people who are working but not making enough to make ends meet,'' he said. "And, there was the elderly population -- people who are not getting back into the workforce. Now, suddenly, over the last year and a half, we've seen the unemployed.''

Finnegan worries about what the "new normal'' for the U.S. economy will be. Even if the national and local unemployment rates drop to 6 or 7 percent, they will be higher than pre-recession rates of 4 to 5 percent -- and the hungry will continue to need a safety net.

"There are more people going to food pantries,'' he said. "Some who had been contributing now find themselves at the door of the pantry seeking food assistance.''

But it is the scope of this nonprofit agency's mission that really tells the story. So, we begin with some numbers:

  • 22 million pounds: amount of food distributed by the food bank in 2009
  • 261,000: number of Missouri and Illinois residents who receive emergency food
  • 101,790: number of children who are helped
  • 35 percent: increase in clients served since 2006

And the reality is this: No matter how successfully the food bank performs its mission today, it will have to do it all over again tomorrow -- and for a growing number of people.
That thought is never far from the surface for food bank staffers, including executive director Frank Finnegan.

"When we have less than 2 million pounds of food on the floor, I get nervous," Finnegan said, as he surveyed the cavernous warehouse of the food bank's nearly 100,000-square-foot distribution center in Earth City, where workers were unloading a shipment of canned apricot halves from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's emergency food assistance program.

Food comes in, and food goes out -- and nothing stays on the shelves for long. The warehouse can hold about 2 million pounds of food, enough to meet a month's demand for the 500 charities that serve 26 counties in eastern Missouri and southwestern Illinois.

To no one's surprise anymore is the fact that the recession has increased the demand for food in the St. Louis region. 

While the food bank has always served senior citizens, the poor and people suffering from unexpected setbacks, clients now include the newly unemployed, Finnegan said.

"And I'm afraid the need is not going to dissipate," he added.

To that end, his goal this year is to increase distribution to 25 million pounds of food, an increase of 3 million pounds over 2009.


Ryan Farmer, the food bank's communication manager, said the pantries, shelters and soup kitchens served by the food bank report an overall increase of 15 to 20 percent in people seeking assistance.

"And the more staggering number for me -- of that 15 to 20 percent increase, about 70 percent are new clients. People who have never requested food before," Farmer said. "If I could change in people's minds what hunger looks like in the St. Louis area it's that it's not all homeless people or people who are sleeping in parks. It's also people who had good jobs and got laid off. They can't find new jobs, or maybe they're working part time. They're not homeless and they weren't frivolous with their money. They had a good job, and that job just isn't there any more."

Farmer said that as local employers closed or shed jobs during the recession, more and more people have been forced to make a terrible tradeoff: Food or their mortgage. Food or gas for their cars. Food or medical bills.

"Those are decisions that, as a new father, I would hate to have to go through," he said. "But, unfortunately, that is what many people are having to do."

Donors and volunteers step up to the plate

When it comes to supporting the food bank, a United Way agency, people in St. Louis continue to step up to the plate -- in both time and dollars contributed.

Though the average amount contributed directly by an individual donor was down to $55 from $75 in the first three months of 2010, that has been offset because the number of donors has increased, said Verletta Cole, director of development.

"I've had people calling to apologize because they can't make their usual donations because they are now unemployed," Cole said.

At the same time, she said, people recognize that the recession has put a growing number of people in need, and more donors have come forward. Though the food bank also receives funding from other sources, including foundation grants, more than 50 percent of its operating budget comes from community support, she said.

According to an audit done in 2007, 97 percent of donations actually go to help the needy, while 3 percent is used for general, fundraising and administrative costs.

The food bank not only enjoys the support of the St. Louis business community -- as evidenced in the makeup of its board of directors who hail from corporations such as Enterprise, Monsanto, Boeing and Commerce Bank -- but also the thousands of volunteers who help daily at the warehouse and its partner agencies.

On any given day, dozens of volunteers work in the warehouse's repackaging center where they inspect food items for quality, sort donations and repackage bulk food items.

Volunteer coordinator Brett Moeller estimates that 12,000 people will help at the food bank this year -- so many, that he has to schedule groups who want to help months in advance.

'In the summer, people forget to do food drives'

The food bank traces its roots to 1975, when the Food Crisis Network formed to serve the St. Louis community. That year, 135,000 pounds of food was distributed. That organization merged with Catholic Charities Food Bank in 1985 and changed its name to the St. Louis Area Foodbank. The next year, the food bank purchased its first distribution center at 5959 St. Louis Ave., where it remained until moving to its new facility in Earth City in 2006.

In the counties it serves, the food bank is the only nonprofit distributor of free U.S. Department of Agriculture products for the Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). The CSFP program provides women, children under age 6 and seniors with nutrients often lacking in their diets: canned fruits and vegetables, peanut butter and other shelf-stable staples.

The food bank is a member of the Feeding America network -- formerly known as Second Harvest -- that distributes contributions from national corporations, such as Kraft, Kellogg's and Nabisco.

Food bank trucks also make daily rounds of Shop 'N Save, Sam's Club, Wal-mart and Target stores to pick up donations that would otherwise by thrown away as waste, said Tim Jackson, inventory control supervisor.

Discarded items, which must meet quality standards, can range from unsold bakery products and soon-to-expire perishables to slightly dented cans or food products that have been discontinued. When Gatorade dropped golfer Tiger Woods as a spokesman, for example, the food bank received packaging with his endorsement that had been pulled off the shelves.

The warehouse has a cooler and freezer to store perishables, and in 2006, the food bank piloted a fresh food donation program with local Sam's Club stores that was later rolled out nationwide.

In a new program, the program buys food at cost from manufacturers and resells it to interested member agencies, Farmer said.

At the grass-roots level, local food drives contributed more than 1.5 million pounds of food last year, said Lenora Young, director of product sourcing.

Leading the way was the Boy Scouts of America Greater St. Louis Council's annual "Scouting for Food" drive that brought in 2.1 million cans -- 884,000 pounds of food. Schools, churches and businesses hold drives all year long, and provide for the best mix of items donated to the food bank, Young said.

The number of food drives benefiting the food bank grew from 165 in 2008 to 235 in 2009 -- yet another sign that people recognize the ever-growing need, Young said.

"What amazes me is that we have not felt the crunch," she said.

That said, Young says that the supply of foodstuffs collected in food drives always runs low in the summer before picking up again in the fall, as the holidays approach.

"In the summer, people tend to forget to do food drives," she said.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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