Robert Flake at Food Pantry

Robert Flake stocks a grocery cart with food for Loving Hearts patrons Nov. 12 in Washington. Area food pantries continue to feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain issues.  

Supply chain issues, surging food prices and increased demand has Franklin County food pantries struggling to keep up.

“Since the start of COVID, we have seen a significant increase in the people that come in for food,” said Michelle Mathews, director of Gerald Community Outreach. “We have more recently seen a significant increase in the amount of people who need assistance with getting their utilities paid or clinical assistance.”

Mathews said Community Outreach saw an average of 10 families per week in 2019. That number has grown to about 30 now, which has the nonprofit struggling to keep food in stock. Community Outreach, like most food pantries, is run by a volunteer staff with donations and grants. Food stock has also been low in recent months.

“One of the main items that we go through, just as an example, is meat,” Mathews said. “In three years volunteering there, I have not ever seen the pantry be as low on meat as we are.”

Meat is something that Mathews said Community Outreach hasn’t had to purchase in the past but may have to consider soon. Right now, Mathews said the pantry is living from food drive to food drive and said a recent bulk donation from the local Girl Scout troop came just in time. And the receipts for purchases Mathews, or other food pantries, have to make to supplement donations have been getting more and more expensive with inflation. Data from the Department of Labor depicts food prices jumping 5.3 percent in October compared with a year ago. 

Mathews said finding volunteers also has been tough. “We have a very small group of volunteers, and it’s hard to get people in the door that want to volunteer.”

Loving Hearts in Washington also needs more volunteers, according to Executive Director Michelle Crider. Before the pandemic, the organization had 41 volunteers, and now it is operating with 12 regular volunteers, she said. Loving Hearts has two full-time and three part-time employees, but with such a large decrease in volunteers, Crider said it has been tough to keep up with demand. 

“Even if it’s one day a week, somebody who is going to come in on the same day at the same time every week ... that’s what we are in need of more than anything, I think,” she said.

Although help in the food pantry would be nice, Crider said her labor needs are at the adjacent thrift store, which helps fund other aspects of Loving Hearts’ operation, like the pantry. 

Crider said she feels lucky to be in Washington because of the Franklin County agencies, including the United Way, that work with and support Loving Hearts. She mentioned the schools and Washington Police Department also have been supportive. 

Sixty percent of the food that Loving Hearts distributes comes from the St. Louis Food Bank, Crider said, which has helped it avoid shortages.

As the pandemic set in during the late spring and summer of 2020, Crider said she saw a decrease in demand. She credited it to the increased financial support from the federal and state governments and inflated unemployment benefits. Now, as those benefits have been phased out, Crider said demand has come back so much that Loving Hearts is outgrowing its space in John Feltmann Industrial Park. She said the leadership team has started to think about upgrading to a bigger building.

Jim Gephardt, a leader at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ’s pantry, said the change by Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to make lunches free last year was a game changer in addition to the increased unemployment and COVID-19 stimulus benefits. Like Loving Hearts, Gephardt said St. Peter’s has been able to avoid food shortages because of a steady donation supply, and the pantry has been able to maintain its volunteer staff.

Jim Armistead, director of Agape House of Franklin County in St. Clair, said unlike St. Peter’s, Agape House needs both volunteers and food donations. The organization serves about 50 families from all over Franklin County in a day and about 1,100 total. It’s a 300-family increase from before the pandemic, Armistead said. To compound problems, his organization is down about 70 volunteers since 2019.

Armistead said the winter season will be tough for area food pantries, so Agape House is accepting both food and monetary donations. 

“We’re able, right now, to keep up with what we do,” Armistead said. 

Help is on the way for the food pantries with one of the largest food drives in the region occurring within the month. “Scouting for Food,” a collection event by local Boy Scout troops that typically collects more than 65,000 canned items from homes in Franklin and Crawford counties, is Nov. 20. 

“We’ve got some food drives coming up over the next month or so,” Armistead said. “Hopefully that will carry us over through the winter months.”