St. Anthony Food Pantry, in the basement of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church at 3130 Meramec Street, has been serving south St. Louis since 1991. Last year, the pantry served roughly 9,000 families.
COVID-19 safety guidelines closed several food pantries in the spring, yet St. Anthony Food Pantry remained open. The pantry removed its proof of residence requirement for nearby zip codes when St. Louis Area Food Bank asked the remaining pantries to serve the entire area, including the Metro East.
The pantry is open to the public Monday and Thursday mornings, and Wednesday evenings. It now provides home delivery to its guests with underlying health conditions and sandwich meals to people without homes. Director Rob Telthorst says, “It takes about an hour to give away a hundred sandwiches. We don’t have to look very hard.”
The guest experience
What is it like to be a guest of St. Anthony Food Pantry? When you arrive, you will wait in a line, as only six guests are allowed in at one time for social distancing.
You will be asked at check-in for a photo ID, residency, any dietary concerns, and which personal care items you would like. Co-director Sister Marie will offer you candy; she always has candy. You are assigned a number and your orders are given to the kitchen and personal care room to fulfill.
While you’re waiting, if you need social or medical referrals—perhaps an ID, shelter, or a clinic—you can go to the resource desk. Once it is safer to do so, St. Anthony’s hopes to get back to hosting attorneys, government phone providers, and insurance groups.
If you’re looking for work, two volunteers at the jobs desk will ask if you have a particular skill set and then go through job listings for current opportunities near South city. Transportation is often an issue for their guests. “If we find a warehouse job in St. Charles for $20 an hour, it really doesn’t do them much good,” Rob explains, “by the time you took Metro to St. Charles, the day is shot.”
Your next stop may be the free table filled with that week’s donated items, such as pots and pans, or you may look through their racks of clothing items. Sam’s Club and Costco often send clothes that cannot be sold due to damaged packaging.
Finally, you would go to the checkout table to pick up your cart of food and personal hygiene items. If you need assistance loading your car, volunteers will help.
The language barrier
South city has a substantial immigrant and refugee population. Beyond Spanish-speaking individuals, the pantry serves many Bosnian, Middle Eastern, and African refugees. Many of the translators the pantry had available pre-pandemic were retired. Now, they are staying home out of precaution. “We are scrambling for translators,” Rob says. “We’ve got about half the translators we need right now.”
A Spanish-speaking volunteer created a placard of all the personal care items for the days when the volunteer was not there. Guests can simply point to the items they need. Rob says that has worked well.
Parents of bilingual children often offer assistance, Rob says, “They go through the line just fine and someone behind them is having trouble and they’ll come back in and say, ‘Would you like my daughter to help?’”
A true community effort
Rob says the pantry goes through about 35,000 pounds of food per month. STL Area Food Bank coordinates all USDA surplus donations, while Operation Food Search coordinates grocery store donations and the annual Girl Scouts canned good drive. In the spring, when grocery stores were unable to replenish shelves to meet demand, Operation Food Search had plenty to offer.
Other sources of food have included food from a family restaurant that closed and surplus student meals from Washington University in St. Louis. Rob says those meals are a godsend, “To our people who don’t have the ability to cook food, it doesn’t do us any good to give them a pound of hamburger.”
St. Anthony’s largest monthly expense for supplies is personal hygiene items. “People think to donate food to the food pantry,” he says, “but people never think to donate toothpaste, and soap, and feminine hygiene [products], and deodorant.” Trips to The Diaper Bank to pick up diapers are limited to once every two weeks because it lacks the storage.
Bed sheet and towel donations stopped during the pandemic when donor hotels lost guests and no longer turned over their inventory, but it started to pick up again, and school supplies have come from local churches. The pantry has a great need for furniture, particularly for beds to replace those that may be thrown out due to bedbug infestation.
This past summer, two of their household freezers went out in the same week. About a week later, a woman who previously sent a donation to the food pantry in her uncle’s name asked about their needs during the pandemic. He told her he had a $4,500 bid for commercial freezers sitting on his desk. She sent a check that covered nearly all the cost. “Stuff like that happens here all the time,” Rob says.
The community effort knows no bounds, Rob says, “It’s churches. It’s community groups. It’s individuals. If it was just St. Anthony’s and the resources we’ve got, we’d never pull it off.”
If you are interested in volunteering with or donating to St. Anthony Food Pantry, contact Rob Telthorst or Sister Marie at 314-352-1460 or firstname.lastname@example.org.