It's a news story we've seen repeatedly since the economic downturn: food pantry shortages. Locally the situation's getting dire for Circle of Concern Food Pantry in an area that many St. Louis residents don't consider when they think of hunger: west county.
"Circle's service area is the Parkway, Rockwood and Valley Park school district areas, the western third of St. Louis County," executive director Glenn Koenen explains. "We help some families who live near Dorsett and McKelvey, and others who live about nine miles southwest of Six Flags. We don't have the concentration of poverty in this area as some parts of the region, but we've seen a 330 percent increase in the number of people fed from 2000 through 2009.
"We'll probably feed more than 5,000 people in the first quarter of this year -- about a 20 percent jump over last year."
In 2006 Circle of Concern fed 2,863 people in the first three months of the year. So far this year they've fed 4,607. It's that huge increase, not a lack of donations, that has caused the shortage.
"We have more food and more money coming in than ever before, but that is more than offset by the incredible jump in families, many scared and desperate, needing assistance for the first time in their lives," says Koenen.
At this stage, with more than 600 families coming to Circle each month, the organization needs, well, everything.
Koenen: "It's hard to imagine a food item we couldn't use. We go through about 800 jars of peanut butter and jelly and over 900 boxes of cereal each month. We buy five boxes each of apples, bananas and oranges each week, as well as 100 pounds of carrots and 400 pounds of potatoes."
The organization gets assistance from Operation Food Search, but it's not enough. Koenen and his crew appreciate the little bit of help they get from local restaurants and caterers, but they could use more.
"We have some caterers, like Callier's Catering in Ballwin, which give us full trays of extras and leftovers. That works well. But 'everyday' restaurant donations have been a problem. We used to get some not-picked-up pizzas -- they'd throw them in the freezer for us -- but corporate changes stopped that."
There's plenty that individuals can do, too. Themed food drives tend to be popular with groups, and Koenen encourages them. An example: Everyone brings in a jar of jelly as admission to the Chesterfield Football Association's season-opening scrimmages. "It's a good way to concentrate giving. A lot of congregations and groups think in terms of 'meals': canned chili, applesauce, canned corn, a Jiffy muffin mix and a box of Jell-O pudding."
The organization purchases meat from the same wholesaler that sells to Dierbergs, and milk from a supplier that works with school districts. Cash donations cover those costs.
The group needs some muscle, too. Circle of Concern operates with a staff of three. Volunteers are welcome.
Circle of Concern 112 St. Louis Avenue PO Box 4444 Valley Park 636-861-2623