High Holiday donations flow in — and right back out

When a visitor asks how the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry is doing, Sue Rundblad is happy to talk about the annual High Holiday collection drive. She’s quick to credit the dedicated volunteers for the big success the effort has enjoyed. She’s quick to speak about the generosity of the St. Louis community in supporting the initiative with tons of cash and loads of canned goods. She’s quick to talk about how much it helps families in need who often have few other places to turn. She’s also quick to point out one other fact about the estimated 33,000 food items collected just weeks ago during one of the pantry’s biggest efforts of the year.

“It’s gone,” she said. “Almost all gone.”

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Rundblad, the pantry’s program director for community outreach, has been working here long enough to know that her organization goes through a great deal of food during this time of year. Still, crushed in a vise of an approaching holiday season and the worst economy in decades, the pantry is increasingly finding itself faced with truly unprecedented demand. Most of the food collected in the recent drive was handed out in about two weeks.

“They’re coming through the doors in record numbers,” said program assistant Ellen Sabin, who said she’s experienced nothing like the present situation in her seven years with the pantry. “We’re seeing more working poor, households where both parents are working and they still can’t make ends meet. We’re seeing more of that than ever.”

According to Rundblad, the pantry now gives away about 60,000 items to about 3,500 individuals in more than 1,200 families every month, an increase of about 400-500 people over this time last year. With hundreds of new faces appearing daily, she expects that total may top 4,000 by year’s end. July alone saw the number of new families seeking help more than double over the same month in 2008. Rundblad estimates that about 850 families are walk-ins at Jewish Family & Children’s Service. Most of the rest require deliveries from the pantry or receive food via a program at Central Reform Congregation.

A typical family has about three to four people, Rundblad said, although the large number of seniors the pantry helps through special programs geared toward the elderly tend to bring down the average.

“I think we started noticing the upward trend last fall. Maybe even a little before,” she said. “We probably could have beaten the economists to the predictions.”

Unfortunately, they are unlikely to beat them out of the recession. Employment frequently trails other sectors of the economy which tend to experience the effects of a recovery well before skittish companies feel comfortable hiring again.

Meanwhile, said Kassi Darakhshan, the pantry’s program manager, it can be hard to put an exact correlation on the delay between jumps in the jobless rate and demand for assistance.

“Somebody might lose their job but it can take awhile for them to come to us,” she said. “Right now, we’re still feeling the backlash of that.”

Darakhshan was hired just two months ago to help deal with the pantry’s explosive growth. Rundblad said that the operation’s clientele has doubled in size in just three years and it now handles families from 89 zip codes. The bad economy has added a new challenge as other food pantries encounter rough seas and are forced to close their doors as donations dry up.

Marilyn Schultz has certainly noticed a difference.

“We’ve got bigger families than we used to where you’ve got three generations living together,” said Schultz, a Chesterfield retiree who volunteers at the pantry two days a week. “It used to be that if we got five or six in a family that was a lot. Now we’re seeing eights, nines and tens.”

Carol Staenberg, who volunteers one day a week, has seen a big increase in clientele during her time at the pantry.

“I’ve been here a little over a year,” said the 53-year-old Clayton resident. “I don’t know the numbers but just being here you can see the increase in the amount of people we’re interviewing.”

Meanwhile, Rundblad continues to search for new ways to get out the word about the pantry’s efforts. An e-mail blast is planned as Thanksgiving approaches and collection barrels will be placed in public areas during the Jewish Book Festival early next month. Another drive is scheduled for the “Canstruction” event in the spring.

The road ahead is a challenging one. Rundblad said that the pantry tries to hand out 7-10 days worth of food to recipients and is in need of items heavy in protein such as peanut butter, beef stew, hearty soups, tuna and canned chicken. Other staples such as vegetables, juices, rice and dried pasta are also being sought.

Yet despite the daunting task, Rundblad feels she has good reason to feel hopeful.

“I’m always optimistic,” she said. “The Jewish community and the community at large have always been very generous. We just need to keep reminding people that whether there’s a food drive or not, buy two cans where you might normally buy one.”

For more information about the pantry, call 314-812-9307.