How St. Louis restaurants are working to feed hungry families


Erica Steen knows the stress that food insecurity can have on families. As the director of the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry, she spends her days helping people assuage the angst they feel at not knowing how they are going to put food on the table or whether or not their kids will go to bed hungry. Typically, this assistance is in the form of groceries, but thanks to a new grassroots program, she’s been able to offer ready-to-eat meals courtesy of a talented local chef.

“One of the neat things we’ve been able to do is get people premade food,” Steen says. “Usually, they have to go home to make meals, but now, they can get something ready-made in addition to what we would normally give them. I don’t think people realize how helpful that is.”

The Harvey Kornblum pantry has been able to offer these prepared restaurant meals thanks to Community Carry Out, a program started this past November by Liz Kniep-Engelsmann, co-owner of the spirits company, Pinnacle Imports. Because her company works directly with many restaurants and bars in St. Louis, Kniep-Engelsmann has seen firsthand the negative impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on businesses. Determined to do something about it, she enlisted the help of fellow business owners and individuals within the St. Louis area to donate the money they’d typically spend at these establishments to a new fund, called Community Carry Out. Restaurants could apply to the fund for grants, then use that grant money to provide meals for local food assistance agencies.

The idea of Community Carry Out is simple. By giving money to restaurants to do what they are supposed to be doing, i.e. cooking for people, the program could simultaneously keep hospitality workers employed while serving those in need. So far, it has worked. Community Carry Out has given approximately $300,000 to 44 different restaurants and provided 15,000 meals to 18 area agencies.

The Harvey Kornblum pantry is one of the organizations that has partnered with Community Carry Out, and so far, it has been a success. According to Steen, her organization is working with the Grand Center restaurant, Turn, to prepare 500 meals for those it serves over the next several weeks. Turn’s chef, David Kincaid, has been a wonderful partner, says Steen, and though she has not yet been able to get feedback from the pantry’s clients, she is certain that his food is being well-received.

“This week, he brought grilled rosemary chicken with wild rice, and last week, he made a wrap and a salad,” Steen says. “I think that when you cook at home, whether you are able to go to the grocery store or not, a restaurant might prepare something different or use different spices that normal folks wouldn’t think of using. It’s a nice treat.”

The pantry’s participation in the program comes at a time when there has been a dramatic increase in demand for its services. According to Steen, the organization has seen a thirty-percent increase in new families needing food assistance over the past year, as the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted household finances. Steen describes seeing people who have never before been to a food pantry come to her organization for help, describing job loss or the financial burden associated with caring for sick family members. She also sees clients come through the pantry’s drive-thru because they are simply too scared to go to the grocery store and see this as a safe alternative.

Community Carry Out has provided a bright spot for the Harvey Kornblum pantry in the midst of such a difficult time for the community. Steen believes that the people it serves are thankful to have a restaurant quality meal, something that is seen as a luxury when finances are tight. However, she also notes that it’s equally heartening to see restaurants benefit from the arrangement as well.

“The whole purpose of this is to help support local food businesses, so in the end, this is a win-win for everyone,” Steen says. “Restaurants are able to keep paying their staff and, as a pantry, we are able to offer something special to those we serve. It’s fulfilling a need by fulfilling a need.”