Food pantry on the brink

Food pantry on the brink
The Ritenour Co-Care Pantry will be forced to close its doors due to lack of funding
By Charlotte Beard
A recent announcement by an Overland food pantry to close its doors to 600 families has caught the attention of the community. The Ritenour Co-Care Pantry, which mostly resembles the inside of a neighborhood corner store with fresh produce, meats and other grocery items, is completely volunteer driven.
Marsha Brown, Executive Director, who recently announced her September resignation due to her overwhelming concern about the state of the pantry, discussed the urgency. The pantry needs $60,000 for operational costs and $100,000 total for at least two positions. At the time of this interview there was $9,000 in the pantry’s bank account. In the fall [season] the facility rental is stated to increase.
Brown stated, “There is nobody here that’s paid…nobody. We do [this] Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We need volunteers. We need canned goods right now.” The pantry had a large supply from December 2016 to July 2017 due to the Ritenour School District’s large can drive. The pantry received 27,000 cans. Other canned good sources came from what remained after the surrounding police districts’ creations of 2016 Christmas baskets for residents in need. “The donations that are coming in right now,” Marsha stated, “I’m holding until we know that we’re going to be able to stay open and I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I am hoping it will. If we don’t get to stay open then [the donations are] going to be sent back to the people.” Marsha stated that they currently have enough funds for approximately two to three months.
Volunteers needed
When Brown was asked about the volunteer needs she stated, “When we have the store open six times a week – we [need to] have people stationed in [the shopping area] to help people read the signs that state how much food they can have for their size family, to guide them, to get more stuff to put on the shelves—to replenish, and to be friendly because it’s hard to come to a food pantry, especially right now. It’s like a funeral right now. The other job we have…when our big food trucks come in on Monday and Friday around noon we have about three hours of intense work…going through those pallets and disseminating all that food and getting it in storage or stocking it to get ready for the next day. We can use anybody that walks in.”
The pantry is open three days a week – twice each day for food pick-up appointments.
Besides the unpaid executive director, the other mainstay positions are staffed by volunteer retirees. The manager of the Ritenour Co-Care “store-like” pantry oversees the volunteers who assist those who come in during their scheduled appointments to shop for food. The other position that is dedicated to managing the incoming deliveries, assists volunteers in knowing where to stock incoming food.
Ron Bickerstaff, the operations manager for the pantry, will remain in his volunteer position if the pantry gets the needed funding to sustain itself in overhead and operational costs.
“Marsha is our executive director, but because we have so few volunteers, she hasn’t been able to focus on that aspect of her job here,” Ron stated. “She’s back here putting meat in the meat freezer and she gets it organized. [She is] handling volunteers instead of doing the real work that is connected to an executive director – which is fundraising and outreach. Because of the lack of volunteers, her and I both [have put in] an incredible amount of work.”
A community in need
Besides other operational functions, Ron handles monthly scheduling of food pick-ups for the 600 families that are assisted by the pantry.
When asked how Ritenour Co-Care determines who needs help, Bickerstaff responded, “Let me ask you a question. Who would want to come to a pantry? We have a trust in people who come here. We have a very important rule for our volunteers here. Treat everyone with dignity and respect. Volunteers are not allowed to take any of the food. Every bit of food that comes here goes out with the people who come by for food. There are volunteers who actually shop here [those in need]. And the way we deal with that situation is that we tell them you can’t volunteer and shop here on the same day so that there is not even an appearance of in propriety. That’s part of the trust relationship we have built with our community.”
Brown added, “Most people won’t take as much as they’re allowed because they don’t want to seem greedy. I read a study a while back that said people in poverty when they think about food they think ‘is there enough?’ People who are middle class they think ‘is it good?’ People who are wealthy they think ‘how is it presented?’
Ritenour Co-Care is associated with the St. Louis Area Food Bank and Operation Food Search, along with some other contacts in securing food for families. One of the other sources is Papa John’s Pizza not far from the pantry on St. Charles Rock Road. Bickerstaff stated that Papa John’s saves all their mistakes or pizzas that people don’t pick up. They put them in their refrigerator and keep them for the pantry to pick up on Wednesdays. “So, every Wednesday night,” Bickerstaff shared, “[for] people [who are] coming in [we tell them] ‘everybody is getting a pizza tonight.’”
Brown emphasized the importance of people understanding the uniqueness of the pantry and why they are finding themselves unsustainable without funds and consistent volunteers.
“We have a perishable food pantry – we have cold storage. We are not like the normal pantry that has only cans. We have a huge walk-in cooler and a huge walk-in freezer and a whole bunch of other coolers and freezers that we have perishable food in. That’s the main thing that people get here – we don’t have much canned stuff right now at all. We have three ice coolers that are full of meat. People don’t think pantries have this but St. Louis Area Food Bank and Operation Food Search provide us with grocery stores that give to us. We have a pipeline to perishable food here and we have people who are hungry that need nutritious food—that’s expensive. They get an overflowing basket—they choose their own food. When they walk out of here they probably have $200 worth of food in their basket. That saves them on their rent, bills, gas, utilities or whatever but they don’t have to spend it on food. We help a little bit to reduce the stress of being in poverty…a little bit…not a lot,” he said.
A tremendous loss
Bickerstaff, shared what the impact would be if the community lost the pantry that had been in existence for 30 years and grown from starting out in the closet of a basement at the Overland Presbyterian Church.
“It would be devastating…they would be scrambling to get another source. We don’t give them enough to live on for a whole month. And that is not really our intention – to support someone. We have about 1,600 families in our database. We only have 600 families come in per month,” he said.
Even greater than the impact to Ritenour Co-Care’s own recipients of losing the pantry is the domino effect Brown mentioned to other pantries. She shared that it has a partnership with Overland Baptist Church. The church uses its van to take any extra food that can’t be stored at the Ritenour pantry to other community pantries.
Brown shared that there are approximately 100 people on the waiting list in the Ritenour district, the only district the pantry serves. They feed those people with pallets of food received from the St. Louis Area Food Bank every fourth Tuesday of the month, via what is called the Mobile Market. People who move from the Mobile Market (waiting list) are guaranteed an appointment to come in and get a shopping basket of food once a month with access to a variety of more food.
In a recent meeting, the St. Louis Area Food Bank confirmed for Brown that Ritenour Co-Care is providing 10 percent of all the food that the Food Bank gives to all pantries in North County.
“We provided $1.3 million [in food] each year to this community for the last two years,” she stated.
Both Brown and Bickerstaff agreed in their responses that operational funding for the facility and expenses without funding for the needed consistency in staff or vice versa would not make Ritenour sustainable. Both are needed.
“There are community leaders, regional leaders and corporations that are meeting next week to try to talk about how they can help with this,” Brown shared at the time of the interview. “We’re hopeful that something will come out of that to keep us going and we can have an assurance of at least one paid person. We need to pay somebody to be an employee because we need consistency.”
CUTLINE: Photos by Charlotte Beard
Cover-Pantry1: Ron Bickerstaff, Operations Manager of the Ritenour Co-Care Pantry stands next to a freezer full of food. The Ritenour Co-Care Pantry is one of the few food pantries in the area to provide frozen meat.
Cover-Pantry2-3: These stocked shelves are in the Ritenour Co-Care Pantry which will have to close its doors due to lack of funding.