The business of fighting hunger

Susan Rundblad knows how to identify a potential donor, find common ground, ask for what she needs, accept gracefully and then express heartfelt appreciation. “Writing a personal thank-you note is really important. We could not survive without donations,” says Rundblad, 57, program coordinator for community outreach for the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry.

A social worker by training, Rundblad, 57, has worked for four years for the food pantry, which operates under the auspices of Jewish Family & Children’s Services, an agency affiliated with the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and the United Way. Rundblad started with the agency, at 10950 Schuetz Road, 15 years ago as a financial assistance social worker.


Letters, lists and notes to herself cover the desk in Rundblad’s office. She has made a mental note, as well — she hopes to take a yoga class some day. “I could go on my lunch hour,” says Rundblad. She pauses, laughs and adds, “Though taking time for lunch is not always an option.”

In these tough economic times, the food pantry staff and 75 volunteers now serve more people than ever. In July, more than 3,600 clients received food, meals and personal care items. That total represents a 108 percent increase over the previous July. The food pantry, which opened in 1991, serves people in need from 89 different Zip Codes and from all backgrounds. No one is turned away.

The number of people in need continues to increase. “In November, we served 4,300 people. I’ve never seen that big an increase in the numbers–ever,” says Rundblad. “What shakes me the most is not the total number, but the number of new people. Last month, 700 new people came to us. We’ve never seen anything close to that. The pantry used to be open three days a week, and now we stay open five days.”

Who is coming for help?

“Everyone’s story is a little different,” says Rundblad. “People call who were laid off yesterday and want to come in today. People who have donated to the pantry in the past call to say that now they need our help. Sometimes, people who call need for me to convince them that it is okay to call. A lot of callers are in places they have never been before. I let them all know they are not only eligible to come here, they are welcome.”

A big part of Rundblad’s job is to seek out donations and grants to help support the work of the food pantry. She also gives talks, organizes food drives, leads tours of the pantry and works on service projects with other agencies. She devotes a big part of each day to answering emails or having phone conversations to arrange new food drives, finalizing the details on food drives in the planning stages and writing those thank-you notes for completed food drives.

Rundblad makes site visits to schools, organizations, synagogues and temples to talk about the food pantry. On two or three Sundays each month, Rundblad works with groups who can’t be available on weekdays, helping coordinate special projects. And she attends meetings with people from the United Way, the Salvation Army and other local food pantries, networking throughout the St. Louis area.

In mid-December, Rundblad was winding up her part in the Jewish Family & Children’s Service’s Hanukkah Hugs program, which provides toys and winter clothing for children in need. “I’ve been working with our volunteer coordinator to find toys, find volunteers to pick up toys at designated spots and volunteers to sort those toys,” says Rundblad.

Kassi Darakshan, program manager at the food pantry, praises Rundblad’s tireless efforts. “Sue has been an asset to the pantry,” she says. “Sue has definitely increased our donations of food and personal care items to where we can serve more families.”

Nancy Weigley, program director for the National Council of Jewish Women-St. Louis section, also expresses appreciation for Rundblad’s work. The two have collaborated on the Back to School Store and the NCJW maintains the Kids’ Community Closet at the food pantry. “Sue is a gem to work with,” says Weigley. “She always responds in the most professional and humane ways–Sue does great things for this community.”

Life of a professional do-gooder

Rundblad grew up in St. Louis. For over 20 years, her husband, Gary, traveled with the family in his job as an engineer for Anheuser-Busch Cos. “We’ve lived in Indiana, Georgia, Wyoming, North Dakota, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado,” says Rundblad, tallying up memories along with the names of the states. “We came back to St. Louis in 1994. Gary is now retired and the couple lives in Manchester. They have two grown children, a daughter and a son, who both live in Soulard.

When Rundblad gets some down time, she enjoys bubble baths and reading, especially “dark, bloody mysteries.” She also likes movies and listening to music and on weekends, she looks forward to spending time with her family and going out to eat.

Speaking of food, Rundblad notes that some of the food pantry’s bounty is purchased with money from a government grant. Some comes from the St. Louis Area Foodbank and Operation Food Search. “This time of year, our food drives are our biggest source of donations,” says Rundblad. “We invite all our donors to come to the food pantry. There is something so satisfying about being in the room with all that good food.”

Rundblad tells donors that they probably know someone who needs help from the food pantry and they probably also know someone who can donate. “In many instances, our donors have turned into volunteers,” says Rundblad. In more than one instance, a prior client became a donor. One person who came for financial assistance and food later sent the food pantry a check for $500.

Asked how it feels to be a professional do-gooder, Rundblad replies, “It feels good. It feels good to be the person who will listen when others have not. This work also makes you grateful for what you have. Working here makes it so easy to share, to help–it just flows from all of us here. Judaism has a saying ‘tikkun olam,’ or ‘repair the world.’ This is our way.”

As for yoga class — well, that may have to wait.