On an unusually frigid Nov. 1, clients stepped from the cold into St. Anthony of Padua food pantry, warmed by the heated basement rooms — and the volunteers’ welcome.
While Linda Frazier waited for her boxes of fresh meat, produce and dry goods, a volunteer also connected her with resources to help pay utility bills she had fallen behind on. “It’s helped me (a lot), the food and the personal items,” Linda said. “Everybody is so nice here — it makes me feel good.”
St. Anthony Food Pantry has been serving the Dutchtown neighborhood of south St. Louis since 1991, opening three days a week to serve those in need. It is one of 25 parish food pantries that receive funding from the Annual Catholic Appeal.
Although “food” is in the title, the pantry offers much more, with volunteers stationed around the space to offer clothing, personal items, a host of resources, and — on Nov. 1 — some Halloween candy.
Noreen Conte, a parishioner at St. Alban Roe in Wildwood, spoke with clients as they checked in about the number of adults and children in the family and needs for clothing, hygiene items and diapers. Noreen has volunteered at the food pantry for 13 years, inspired by Jesus’ call to have special concern for the poor.
“My day job is going into low-income daycares to do vision screenings, and I’m part of St. Vincent de Paul group at my parish,” she said. “It gives me joy.”
At another table, Dick Drury, a parishioner at Mary Mother of the Church in south St. Louis County who has volunteered at the food pantry for 10 years, manned the resource table, offering referrals for job help, housing, rental and utility assistance, medical services, educational opportunities, domestic violence help, legal services and more.
“This is the help desk. Anything going on in your life that we can help with?” he asked a young man who approached.
Next to the resource table, a nurse from Deaconness Health Ministries was available for blood pressure and blood sugar screenings and minor medical care. Down the line, Sister Marie Orf, CPPS, helped arrange items on the “free table,” which included everything from Costco vitamins to Bombas socks to Christmas decorations. Everything on the table is donated, but if something is used, it has to be in great condition, Sister Marie said.
“We always say that we don’t give them anything that we wouldn’t want to use ourselves,” said Sister Marie, who has served as assistant director of the food pantry since 2011.
Out back is a greenhouse, where staff and volunteers grow tomato seedlings in the spring to give out to clients with instructions on keeping the plant growing at home. The food pantry contracts with a composting service to compost any food waste.
The pantry, which partners with the St. Louis Area Food Bank, has continued to see high numbers of clients since the COVID-19 pandemic, said food pantry director Rob Telthorst. During the height of the pandemic, they served many new clients who had been laid off from well-paying jobs and suddenly found themselves in need.
He remembers speaking with one woman who stopped by the resource table, looking for job assistance; she had worked as a soundboard technician in the entertainment industry, but with theaters and concert halls closed, the work was gone.
“It just happened over and over again,” he said. “We used to have, during a food pantry day, three or four people come in who were new to the pantry. All of a sudden, during COVID, we’re getting 15, 20, 25 people (each time) who had never been here.”
While many people were able to find work again, inflation then hit hard, and the number of clients they see has not gone down, Rob said. In August 2023, they helped 200 families who had never been to the pantry before. He recalled another family in which the mother was laid off during the pandemic. She got her job back several months later, but by then, her child’s daycare had closed, and they could not find another affordable one, so she had to stay home instead, taking away essential income from the family.
Rob, a parishioner at Mary Mother of the Church, became director of the food pantry four years ago, a hard pivot from his previous career as an attorney. Coming from his corporate background, working with the food pantry has pushed him to rely more on the Lord and His providence, he said.
“This is a really simple mission down here. There is no annual fundraiser. There’s no dinner auction. There’s no golf tournament,” he said. “This is a Franciscan parish, and people here are really good about praying about what’s needed.”
A few months into the job, one of the food pantry’s commercial freezers went out, and Rob wasn’t sure how they would afford to replace it. A volunteer asked what the plan was, then offered to buy one himself.
Not long after, another volunteer shared that story with his men’s Bible study. A fellow parishioner was inspired and used money recently left by his brother to purchase a new fridge for the food pantry.
“I don’t know how many times we’ve needed money for something, and I’d be sweating. I don’t know how we’re going to get money for this,” Rob said. “…And over four years, repeatedly, I’ve seen our needs — significant needs — be met through prayer.”
Being a parish-based food pantry has its advantages, too, Rob said. “We’re in the church basement, rent-free,” he said. “And we have the support of the parish council and volunteers. St. Anthony parishioners do monthly food donations drives for us. And there’s a great network of parishes, too — everybody knows everybody, and we have volunteers from parishes all over the metro.”
When food supplies have run low, “Parishes and Catholic schools really carry us along,” he said. “We put the word out and say, ‘This week, we need tuna fish'; next week, we’d need cereal, then mac and cheese. And everybody was so good to us — we had enough.”
St. Anthony of Padua Food Pantry
St. Anthony of Padua Food Pantry serves those in need from zip codes 63118, 63111 and 63116. Hours are Monday and Thursday from 10 a.m.-noon and Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m.
For more information, call 314-352-1460 or visit stanthonyofpaduastl.com/outreach-ministries.