Thirty years ago, Frank Conard stopped by the food pantry at Sts. Joachim and Ann Parish to see what they were doing to help people at Thanksgiving. He was inspired by a homily he’d heard about the importance of serving the least of God’s people.
Because of a pre-set schedule with the area food bank, the pantry director said they weren’t able to get donations that week, so they had nothing to give.
Conard was in disbelief. “I said, ‘How many families do you have a week?’ They told me 120,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Tell them to be there that Tuesday night and I will take care of it.’ We bought everything they needed for 120 families. We made the first distribution on that Tuesday night before Thanksgiving.”
And so was the beginning of No Hunger Holiday, an annual Thanksgiving meal given to a community in need. From those initial 120 families, the event was later taken on by the Harvester Knights of Columbus and grew over the years.
Now No Hunger Holiday is its own nonprofit organization, and has grown to include more than 4,000 families, covering seven counties (St. Charles, St. Louis, Warren, Montgomery, Lincoln, Pike and Franklin) and the City of St. Louis, via more than 40 partner agencies and organizations. Each recipient gets a box of food, including a turkey, to make a complete Thanksgiving meal at home.
The number of those in need has spiked over the years during historic floods and economic recessions. Conard, now a member of St. Joseph Parish in Cottleville, was anxious that the pandemic would present a challenge. But given the increase of people in need, he knew it needed to be done.
“I thought, we’ll pray on it, but we will get it,” he said of donations, which come from individuals, schools, businesses and organizations across the area. “There are five of us who meet every Wednesday at 4 a.m. for eucharistic adoration. We pray a Rosary and we pray for this country, and the pope and we pray for (President) Donald Trump. It’s all there.”
Holiday meal giveaways, such as No Hunger Holiday, and food drives are highlighting the issue of food insecurity in the pandemic. The St. Louis Area Foodbank has provided food and personal care items to more than 500 local hunger-relief organizations prior to the pandemic and has added 81 new community partners and distribution sites since March 16, when the COVID-19 outbreak arrived in the area. In a survey of people receiving food assistance through their network of partner agencies, which include food pantries, shelters, soup kitchens and senior living facilities, roughly 70 percent self-reported that this was the first time they’ve had to ask for assistance, said director of marketing Ryan Farmer.
Since mid-March, the St. Louis Area Foodbank, which serves 26 counties in the bi-state region, reports that through its partner agencies, more than 36 million meals have been served, more than 1,200 drive-through food distributions have been organized and more than 100 virtual food drives have been started. The Foodbank distributed food received through the USDA’s Farmers to Families food box program and the organization continues to assist individuals applying for benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
“It’s been inspiring to me to see how people continue to step up,” Farmer said. “Most of us are one life event from needing food assistance.” The pandemic has drawn attention to how thin the margins can be. “Some people can absorb being furloughed or experiencing a job loss or downturn in business, but many who are living paycheck to paycheck — food is often the first thing that gets cut out of people’s budgets. I’d say it’s a basic human right to have access to food, and we want to help any way we can.”
Health and safety
COVID-related health and safety guidelines in different parts of the state also have led partner agencies, as well as area foodbanks, to shift how it gets food to people in need, Farmer said. Thanksgiving dinners at a church or welcoming clients to shop at a food pantry, have been replaced with drive-through events or food deliveries, for example.
St. Vincent de Paul Church in St. Louis annually serves about 1,400 meals at a Thanksgiving dinner in its parish hall, said Father Dan Thiess, CM, but had to cancel it this year. Instead, volunteers delivered bags of food with items to make Thanksgiving dinner. Its annual Christmas program also is being changed to a drive-through event. Donations are still steady, he said, adding his thanks for the generosity of many parishes across the archdiocese, as well as local businesses and organizations.
“We had to think creatively,” he said. “Our numbers are up for Christmas. We have at least more than 300 compared to what we had last year,” which was about 2,000 individuals.
Other annual food programs, such as the Scouting for Food program hosted by the Greater St. Louis Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, was altered to include a text-to-give option as well as drop-off locations to collect food for those in need. For information, visit stlbsa.org/scouting-for-food.
Numerous organizations that directly benefit from the Scouts’ food collection, such as Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service, also hosted food collection drives. Annual collections including Scouting for Food and USPS Stamp Out Hunger account for roughly 60% of the Care Service’s non-perishable food distributed through its weekly food pantry. Prior to the pandemic, more than 41,000 people in the tri-county area served by the Care Service — St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties — were food insecure. That number rose an average of 60% across the country as a result of the pandemic, according to Feeding America.
“Hunger is an issue facing many families in the tri-county area. Our food pantry alone serves more than 150 families each week. Often the families we assist have to choose between purchasing food for their family or paying rent to keep a roof over their heads,” said Pam Struckhoff, executive director at the Care Service. “Many of these families are working, but are still struggling to provide the most basic of needs like food and shelter.”
Rooted in Christ
Volunteers with No Hunger Holiday lined the tables with Thanksgiving fixings, as a forklift brought in through a set of double doors a pallet of frozen turkeys.
Conard said the name of the annual event came from the idea that Thanksgiving is the “one day a year in which we need to say there is no hunger.”
He reflected on one of the recent Sunday readings, in which Jesus told His disciples, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
“That’s what I believe,” Conard said. “We’re doing this because we believe in Jesus and because you are one of His.”
In a letter that is included in every Thanksgiving box, Conard writes, “Please accept this offering as proof that Jesus loves you and will always take care of you and your family. This community comes together to fill the void.”