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Food Insecurity Is Up — And St. Louis’ Food Banks, Pantries And Farms Are Responding

Earlier this year, Carolyn Randazzo (at left), a volunteer with the Ferguson-based Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish food pantry, alerted nearby EarthDance Organic Farm School of the spike in need she was seeing. Since then, EarthDance’s staff, including Deborah Rice-Carter (at right), have stepped up in a big way, donating more than 1,800 pounds of fresh produce to local pantries.

In her volunteer work with the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish food pantry in Ferguson, Carolyn Randazzo doesn’t pester clients with questions about what prompted them to seek help. But they do have conversations, so Randazzo has a sense of some of the biggest challenges families face, such as job loss in the service industry and the need to feed more mouths more meals each day.

“In our area that we serve, most of our students have virtual learning at this point in time, some are in a hybrid situation, so they’re home for lunch and breakfast, too, and so that’s been a big strain for our families,” Randazzo said Tuesday.

“Our school districts have helped out some with that, with providing meals, but still, the kids are home all day, so there’s a big need there. And then some of our families have had other family members move in with them or whatever as they have lost jobs or have needed to be where there are other adults in the house to help supervise kids who are home from school.”

At Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, it all adds up to about a 25% client increase in recent months, with Randazzo estimating the pantry served 1,300 people in October alone.

Lucinda Perry Jones
Operation Food Search
Lucinda Perry Jones is director of strategic initiatives for Operation Food Search.

That’s in keeping with what food banks and other partners are observing throughout the region, according to Operation Food Search’s director of strategic services, Lucinda Perry Jones. She’s seen about a 40% increase in food insecurity rates throughout the St. Louis region during the COVID-19 upheaval.

At the same time, Perry Jones and Randazzo are seeing the St. Louis community take action to help meet the ongoing need. In Ferguson, EarthDance Organic Farm School is just one organization that has stepped up in a big way, donating more than 1,800 pounds of fresh produce so far this year to Blessed Teresa and other nearby pantries. That works out to about 23,918 servings of produce, said EarthDance’s founding director, Molly Rockamann.

In addition to helping keep pantry volunteers from turning families away, that influx means providing families with “beautiful, organic, fresh produce that’s grown not even a mile away from our pantry,” as Randazzo put it.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked with both Perry Jones and Rockamann about how community members are working together to help address some of the biggest needs right now.

“[Donating food] is something we’ve done since the beginning of our existence, just not to the degree that we have rolled out this year,” Rockamann said about EarthDance. “Food security is absolutely important.

Molly Rockamann is the founding director of EarthDance.

“Our [focus since founding] has been primarily on teaching people how to grow food for themselves and their communities as an organic farm school. But this year we knew there was just such an emergency need for food that we really wanted to do more in our own community to address the food need.”

Operation Food Search’s Perry Jones noted that access to fresh produce is critical alongside nonperishable items when it comes to combating hunger.

“We help feed more than 200,000 people every month through our network of partners,” she said, “and we have been fortunate during the COVID to be able to access perishable food that comes from both government sources and also private sources.”

In the case of St. Louis-area farms such as EarthDance, Rockamann said, in addition to donations, they’ve been involved in making fresh produce more affordable in local communities.

“We also operated a pay-what-you-can veggie share program where people could come to the Ferguson Farmers’ Market and pick up a share of veggies at whatever price they could afford,” she said. “Which I think also gives folks some agency in it … for folks who are maybe not aware yet, you know, with the pandemic putting so many people newly in financial distress, a lot of folks aren’t tapped into those food pantries where they can get access to fresh produce.”

Perry Jones emphasized that the COVID-19 crisis has had a “profound” impact on food insecurity.

“People who have been hit the hardest are children who are not in school, the homebound, senior adults, [and] people that are living in rural communities are also experiencing food insecurity for the first time,” she said. “So we’re seeing a lot of change within the family dynamic.”

As Operation Food Search and others work to fill the need, Perry Jones said she wants people know how important their donations — both in-kind and monetary — are.

The St. Louis on the Air team asked listeners for their top picks in terms of resources, virtual food drives (such as this version and this one) and related efforts in the region.

In addition to larger-scale organizations including the St. Louis Area Foodbank and Food Outreach, suggestions included Urban Eats Healthy Kitchen in the city’s Dutchtown neighborhood and MapleGood, a support network in the Maplewood-Richmond Heights community.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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