Spacious new home for food pantry

Max Erlich is greeted by Andrew Rehfeld, Jewish Federation President and CEO, at a grand opening celebration on Sunday for the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry. For a gallery of images from the celebration, visit Photo: Yana Hotter

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Standing across the room from the pallets of canned vegetables and the gaily painted panels inscribed with quotes from Deuteronomy to the Dalai Lama, speaker David Weiss got more than a few chuckles when he expressed the secret ethos of a standing room only crowd of hundreds.

“May the food pantry always be full,” the Jewish Family & Children’s Service president told the audience, “and may the speeches be short.”

Both looked to be true Sunday afternoon during a four-hour event celebrating a major milestone for the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry — leaving the JF&CS building and moving into a larger facility all of its own.  

Early next month, the food pantry plans to begin operations at its new home, located less than a mile away, at 10601 Baur Boulevard in Olivette. Named the Max and Drew Erlich Center, the facility will allow the rapidly growing segment of JF&CS to undergo a much needed expansion of its operations.  

The Allan R. Hoffman Building, where the pantry was previously housed, will remain open as host to JF&CS’s other operations.

Fred Steinbach, past president of the agency, said the new digs cover more than 21,000 square feet, enough to serve twice the present clientele.

“It’s about six or seven times larger than what we had before,” he said. “Part of what we had before was a basement for storage with one elevator that was way over capacity.”

Eveline Hoffman, whose late husband’s name is on the previous facility, said the agency had outgrown its old spot and she’s glad to see the new one coming online.

“We’re giving back to the community and the Jewish Family & Children’s Service is doing a wonderful job,” said Hoffman, who resides in Clayton. “My family are big supporters and will continue to be so.”

The namesake of the new building is equally pleased.

“I’m here because I think this is a marvelous organization and it’s doing wonderful things,” said Max Erlich.

The Erlich family’s gift of a million dollars was the approximate purchase price of the food pantry’s new home, a brick building that formerly housed a signage company. The gift allowed the pantry to replenish its endowment after acquiring the property. Steinbach said about $2.3 million dollars has been raised in total from various donors in the effort.

Still, some of the weekend’s smiles were tempered by talk of the persistent face of need that makes the move necessary in the first place. The pantry has seen an explosive growth in demand since the onset of the economic crisis four years ago. Steinbach noted that in 2008, the organization served 2,500 people a month. Today, it helps twice that number.

Attendee Bill Siedhoff, director of the Department of Human Services for the City of St. Louis, said that the prevalence of food insecurity has never been greater.

“The opening of this particular distribution center really plays into what we are seeing in terms of the increase in the poverty rate across the country,” he said. “We know in the city of St. Louis, our poverty rate is about 27.6 percent. Even in the county, it’s over 10 percent. Given those numbers, it’s pretty obvious that something like this is a pretty dramatic development in terms of assisting people in the entire region.”

Creve Coeur Mayor Barry Glantz said it was good to see the new pantry site come to life.

“We hear all the time about people that are hungry in the world and it seems so far away but in these economic times, that gets closer to home,” he said. “To have this great group of volunteers right here in our community doing what they do best is a real testament.”

Local attendee Jerry Rosen agreed. His arms laden with a sack of boxed and canned goods to give to the pantry, he said it was vital to support the agency’s mission.

“The need is so great right now,” he said. “There’s a lot more volume, a lot more families that are in need. This is a good time to get a new building with more storage and be able to serve everybody.”

Rosen wasn’t the only one bringing edibles to the event. Participants were encouraged to come with food items to help stock the shelves. Once there, they were greeted with tables of refreshments, cookies and fresh apples. Music was on tap as were activities for youngsters including face painting, a roving magician and a children’s art wall.

A number of dignitaries were on hand, including Missouri’s lieutenant governor Peter Kinder, state Representative Jill Schupp and County Executive Charlie Dooley, who presented a proclamation honoring the opening.

Interviewed beforehand by the Jewish Light, Schupp, who represents the Creve Coeur area, said it was a happy day.

“It means so much, especially in these times to be able to meet people’s most basic needs,” said Schupp, who is Jewish. “We are thrilled and delighted to be able to do this as a Jewish organization that is serving people of all faiths throughout our community.”

Steinbach said the move had been in the cards for some time with planning beginning about a year ago after findings came back from a committee headed by area resident Carol Staenberg, which was tasked with looking into the organization’s future needs.

“The next challenge is the continuing operation of this building, which will cost us a couple hundred thousand dollars a year in additional funds to provide for a separate location,” Steinbach said.

Frances “Frankie” Silverman said at the event that this wasn’t the first move she has seen during her years volunteering at the pantry. As the longest serving volunteer with the organization, she remembers when it was housed near Olive Street and Dielman Road.

“It kept growing and growing,” she said. “It’s just unreal.”

Silverman said some of the clients had been coming the entire 18 years she’d been involved.

“It’s a good place to volunteer because you see what you are doing,” she said. “It’s one volunteer thing where you can see everybody and get to know your clients.”

Andrew Rehfeld, recently named head of the Jewish Federation, said his agency was proud to be a part of JF&CS’s work.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to support our community and those in need,” he said.