25 years on, Jewish Food Pantry nourishes client service

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Larry, 67, walks through the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry, picking up a chicken and a stalk of celery. He tells a volunteer that he doesn’t need peanut butter, “does not take cabbage” and would not like any plums, which are too soft. 

“I don’t take anything that I don’t need. I leave it for someone else,” Larry, who agreed to talk on the condition that his real name not be used, said Aug. 15.

Larry, who lives in north St. Louis County, says he’s been on disability since 1998 when he suffered a heart attack and had open-heart surgery. He has since had eye problems related to a cataract surgery. Eye drops, other medicines and medical bills are expensive. And his brother, who is a diabetic, is living with Larry and his wife.

The Kornblum food pantry, a Jewish Family & Children’s Service program, “helps me with my grocery bill, and I don’t have to buy as much,” Larry says. “It helps me a whole lot.”

As the pantry approaches its 25th anniversary, clients, staff and volunteers say it has changed in a multitude of ways. It is in its third and by-far-largest location, a warehouse at 10601 Baur Blvd. In 2015, it served more than 5,000 families, compared with 40 families in 1991. It has 11 staff members and more than 150 volunteers.

Some of the biggest changes are related to the how clients and volunteers interact. When the pantry started, clients were simply recipients, each receiving a uniform bag of goods. Now, people shop alongside volunteers, picking up fruit to test its ripeness and leaving what they don’t want. 

That relationship between volunteers, who are largely Jewish, and clients, the majority of whom, like Larry, are African-American, also means that the former group learns not only about food preferences but also the issues the latter group faces.

Florence Cohn, 80, of Ladue, has volunteered at the pantry since 2000. She says allowing clients to shop alongside volunteers “makes the client feel empowered, makes the client feel like they have some control, and sometimes when you are poor, you have no control.”

Cohn says the shopping system also has had a positive effect on her.

“I have lived a privileged life, a white middle-class life, and having lived that life, I haven’t come across many (underprivileged) people,” she says. “It gives me a much better understanding of what their lives are like, and I’m not so quick to judge people, because you really have to know their story.”


Need is high

Cohn has followed the pantry from its first location on Olive Boulevard in Creve Coeur to the JF&CS building on Schuetz Road, where clients were not permitted into the area in which volunteers packed bags; to its current location, which opened in 2012. The 21,000-square-foot warehouse is more than five times the size of its previous location. 

Leaders of the organization say they made the move because the need for food assistance increased significantly during the economic crisis in 2008 and remained high even after the economy recovered. 

Missouri was one of only five states to see an increase the last two years in the percentage of people who experience food hardship — meaning they had difficulty affording food for their family in the last year — according to a national Gallup survey. In Missouri, 17.3 percent of residents experienced food hardship in 2015, up from 16.8 percent in 2014, the survey found. Gallup measures food hardship with the following question: “Have there been times in the past twelve months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?” 

Missouri also was one of six states in January to reinstate a three-month benefits cap on all food-stamp recipients that had been waived during the recession, according to an Associated Press report. Otherwise, recipients need to  work or attend education or job-training courses for at least 80 hours a month in order to receive food stamps under the federal SNAP program. By April, about 26,000 people had lost their food stamp benefits, according to the Missouri Department of Social Services. 

“This state has a long way to go,” says Judy Berkowitz, director of the Kornblum food pantry since early last year. 

When the food pantry moved to its larger location, it also switched to the client-choice shopping method. Lou Albert, executive director of JF&CS, says that’s a more “dignified approach” and cuts down on waste because clients take only what they want or need. 

That approach also means that volunteers sometimes hear frustrations from clients, many of whom live in Ferguson and surrounding areas in north St. Louis County.  Berkowitz says that since the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson two years ago, if clients feel “they are not being treated well, they may express it in racial overtones a little bit more than before.”

“People are more free to talk about their discontent if they have a problem, and sometimes they will say, ‘You are not letting me shop here today because I’m black,’ when really they may not be able to shop here today because this is the third time they were reminded that they must bring their ID with them,” Berkowitz says. “Of course, I would be upset because I keep forgetting my ID and I can’t shop today for my family. But sometimes I am now hearing, ‘You’re prejudiced, and you don’t ask white people this question.’  Well, we really do.

“Is it a big issue? No, it really isn’t.”


Creating a culture of fairness

Cohn, who belongs to Kol Rinah, says most clients are “so grateful and so gracious” and regularly say, “ ‘Bless you, you have fed my family,’ and that gives you a chill.”

Al, 56, of Florissant, says he feels he has been treated unfairly at the pantry because he is black. Al, who did not want his full name used, is a retired retail sales manager who has received help from the pantry since it opened. He says he recently encountered a volunteer who was “rude and very mean to black people, and I have been watching her for years and years. I watch her interact with a white person and a black person, and she is nasty and rude to the black people.”

Berkowitz, who wants more input from clients, noticed how angry he was, talked with him and tried to calm him down. She asked him whether he wanted to join an advisory committee for the pantry.

“I was glad that Judy reached out to me,” Al said. “I just thought everyone there was like” the volunteer.

Berkowitz says she has also tried to find other ways to help clients. The pantry recently connected with a nutritionist to visit on Thursdays and privately talk with clients while they are in the waiting room about issues such as diabetes. She also will make healthy dishes from ingredients available in the pantry and provide samples and recipes. 

Pantry staff also is trying to educate clients about how to apply for government benefits, help them find a job or connect them to counseling services. 

“We would like to consistently refer them to the appropriate services and make sure that folks contact those services, and hopefully they got the help that they needed,” says  Berkowitz, who has also formed an association with leaders of other local food pantries. “It’s hard to do that when you’re seeing 100 people a day, but we’re getting there.”

In the meantime, the clients interviewed on a recent visit to the food pantry were happy shopping there. Mary, 77, says she retired 20 years ago after running a beauty salon for three decades. 

“Standing on the concrete for so long, the doctor told me I wore my hips out,” says Mary, who also is African American and asked that only her first name be used. 

She has had two hip replacements. She says her walking has improved, but she still has two walkers and eight canes at her University City home. She’s been coming to the Kornblum pantry for about seven years. She says she used to go to another pantry but there was too much drama there, with people taking more food than they were allowed. 

At the Jewish Food Pantry, Mary does not take food she doesn’t need and says she is grateful to the organization. 

“This is most of my monthly supply of food,” she says.