St. Louis community gardens, food pantries head off COVID-19 food catastrophe 

ST. LOUIS, Mo. —On a crisp late summer morning, 65-year-old Army veteran Nancy Vonner walked the five blocks from her home in a North St. Louis neighborhood marked by pawn shops and boarded up homes to the St. Augustine Wellston Center, a long-time community fixture that’s part thrift shop, part food pantry.

Joined by a steady stream of clients, including a young mother who lost her warehouse job during the COVID-19 pandemic, Vonner filled a shopping cart borrowed from a major grocery store that’s no longer in the neighborhood. She stocked up on milk, meat, pasta and other essentials that would keep her family fed until she received her monthly government assistance.  “Everybody knows I’m the struggling granny,” Vonner said, explaining that a car wreck a year ago left her once able-bodied son paralyzed, forcing her into the role of being a caretaker for the son and his passel of children, including a set of triplets. “I come here once a month. I’m working with whatever I get.”

Wellston, one of dozens of food pantries across the St. Louis metro area, joins a growing number of community gardens as part of a homegrown response aimed at heading off a major food catastrophe that loomed when the deadly coronavirus shuttered businesses and schools across the region. In addition, retailers large and small and federal, state and local agencies stepped in, offering an all-hands surge especially needed in areas already classified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as having low access to healthy foods.

Leaders up and down the food chain expressed admiration for the success of the concerted effort during the height of the storm, but no one interviewed by The St. Louis American saw the steps taken as even the beginnings of a permanent solution to the long-standing scourge of food insecurity in areas already tagged as food deficient. That leaves more than 190,000  residents in St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Clair County, Illinois living in neighborhoods without easy access to fresh food, or victims of “food apartheid” as activists call it.

“Food drives, there’s been a lot of those efforts,” said Kelly McGowan, who works with St. Louis-based EVOLVE to help community members conduct audits documenting what healthy foods are available nearby. “People have to eat and I’m definitely not knocking that. But you know that’s putting a Band-Aid on a systemic issue.

“Looking at things like housing, making sure people work at jobs that pay a livable wage, … public safety, that’s huge. So I think at least it is a start and [we’re] having the conversations to figure out, ‘okay, we have a couple of Band-Aid solutions that help to support the communities.’ … But longer term, what are the solutions?”

Just as it laid bare decades-old inequities in health care, the 20-month old pandemic, which swelled the ranks of the unemployed, exposed holes in the nation’s food safety net.

As a safety precaution during COVID, workers at the St. Augustine Wellston Center in St. Louis box groceries before the food pantry opens, to speed distribution. (Photo by Karen Robinson-Jacobs/St. Louis American)

In 2020, one in four Black residents across the U.S. experienced food insecurity — more than three times the rate for white households — according to Feeding America, the nation’s largest charitable hunger-relief organization. Many of them live in areas deemed by the USDA to be low income and with low access to healthy food options. The regions formerly were described as “food deserts,” but activists such as Dara Cooper say that rather than experiencing a naturally occurring phenomenon, like a desert, the hardest-hit regions have been subjected to food apartheid – “structural, racialized inequities,” including decades of declining investment from traditional grocers and a saturation of smaller stores hawking highly processed foods, often high in salt and sugar.

Diets heavy in these foods have been linked to ailments such as diabetes and hypertension, which are known to boost the risk of severe illness in those who test positive for COVID-19.  Even before COVID-19 hit, according to USDA data from 2015 and 2019, dozens of census tracts in St. Louis and St. Louis County were considered low income and low access, meaning access to healthy food within one mile was scarce.

Across the Mississippi River, in St. Clair County, between 2015 and 2019 the number of urban census tracts deemed low-income/low access leaped by 43% to 20, USDA data show, encompassing an area of more than 72,000 residents.

Last year, COVID-19 pushed the persistent problem of healthy food access toward crisis levels.

Between June 30, 2019 and June 30, 2021 the number of meals provided by The St. Louis Area Foodbank – which serves 14 Missouri counties and 12 in Illinois – increased by 53% to nearly 53 million, data from the nonprofit show. In seven especially hard hit zip codes in St. Clair County, the number of residents deemed to be food insecure rose by 60% between 2019 and 2020 to more than 6,700 food-insecure residents according to “Map the Meal Gap,” an analysis of food insecurity in the United States distributed by Feeding America.

“On the charitable food side, we saw just this huge increase in demand,” said Emily Engelhard, managing director of research for Feeding America. “And seeing the increase that we did for Black individuals, and Latino individuals, and then children overall, I think just continues to point to …underlying systemic issues that are not going to go away. Again, they existed before the pandemic, they continue to be a problem.”

Some of the triage measures introduced during the pandemic may have staying power. Food distribution organizers praised the efficiency of drive-through food giveaways, including efforts by The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis which gave food to more than 60,000 families over 22 weeks.

Organizers also credit the pandemic with helping to destigmatize visits to food pantries, since many clients were first-time users. While food donations clearly provided a lifeline to many, the process was not without hiccups. Tosha Phonix, who co-founded St. Louis-based EVOLVE — Elevating Voices of Leaders Vying for Equity — noted that some food boxes handed out to St. Louis area residents during the pandemic contained the same salty, high-calorie snacks nutritionists say have contributed to unhealthy conditions in Blacks.

Kim Jayne, treasurer of Wellston Loop Community Development Corporation, serving an area marked by low-income and stubbornly high levels of substance abuse, said she started pitching in money from her own pocket when the hand-out boxes stopped coming. Choking back tears, she conceded that approach is not sustainable.

Where are the grocery stores?

When residents in low-income areas talk about the lack of access to healthy foods, it’s usually related to the absence of major grocery stores within walking distance or on convenient bus lines. Grocers operate on notoriously thin margins. When accused of abandoning low-income areas, they routinely point to profit and loss statements that guide them to open in areas with higher incomes and steady foot traffic.

Schnucks is one of the largest grocers serving the St. Louis area, which is home to nearly 80 of the brand’s 111 locations. Only one of the three locations the brand opened since the beginning of the pandemic – in Columbia, Missouri – was near a low access area. Two locations closed since the pandemic began – in Alton and Shrewsberry – were near food desert neighborhoods. “We’re obviously a large regional grocer and we’ve committed to leveraging our business expertise to help communities, not just through the operation of our stores but also through our work in the communities,” said Bill Bradley, chief marketing and communications officer for Schnuck Markets, Inc.

In 2020, Schnucks donated food valued at more than $12 million to St. Louis-based Operation Food Search, with which it has a decades-long partnership. The nonprofit and its 300 food partner agencies monthly serve more than 200,000 Missouri and Illinois residents, many of whom live in low-access areas. The $12 million was a slight decrease from the $13 million donated in 2019, as the pandemic boosted consumer purchases of fresh foods, leaving less available for donation, the company said.

Kristen Wild, chief executive and president of Operation Food Search, said a 26% drop in the value of food donated between its 2019 and 2021 fiscal years was offset by a jump in financial donations and federal CARES Act funding. In October 2019, months before the pandemic hit, retailer Save A Lot snipped a ribbon at a newly built store at 1331 Union Blvd. in St. Louis, near Page Boulevard. The newest of 44 local Save A Lot locations, it was one of the few traditional grocery stores to open in the area in recent years.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines large sections of North St. Louis and East St. Louis, Illinois as having low access to healthy food, in part due to an absence of traditional grocers. (Map courtesy of USDA)

The location, which offers fresh-cut meat, fruits and vegetables, is blocks from a USDA designated low access area, but a former company executive said that status did not figure in the pre-opening calculations. “That particular store, here in St. Louis, it was just a fantastic area for us to do a ground-up brand new store,” said Chris Hooks, who was executive vice president and chief merchandising officer for Save A Lot. “It’s a high-traffic area.  It absolutely fit the model when we look at density of population, [and] opportunity for our brand. And when we look at the competitive set, [and] the available real estate, it just absolutely made perfect sense. It just checked all the boxes.”

Weeks after that interview, however, Save A Lot opted to close a location in nearby Pagedale, following a review of a “number of factors, including financial performance as well as strategic alignment with long-term plans,” a spokeswoman said. The Pagedale location opened in 2010 to much fanfare and praise from area residents concerned about food access. While traditional grocers have not rushed into the low-access areas, dollar stores have, initially to the chagrin of some food activists.

That may change as two of the largest brands – Dollar General and Dollar Tree – look to add fresh produce to a mix that has long relied on sales of everything from cleaning supplies to kitschy holiday decorations. One Dollar General with fresh produce in Spanish Lake happened to be the site of a recent food audit McGowan was helping area residents complete. “I was shocked,” McGowan said. “I forgot I was even in Dollar General. The produce they had in there … they had fresh cauliflower.”

The Bellefontaine Road location added produce during a pandemic-era remodel in October 2020, according to Dollar General. The produce mix includes lettuce, tomatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, lemons, and salad mixes. Several activists said they would like to see local retailers and area restaurants partner with local Black farmers to help meet community needs for fresh foods.

“There were a lot of organizations that were coming into community trying to feed community sub-par food, right, not healthy food,” Phonix said.  Some also spoke of the need to add healthier items “but no one was talking about getting them from Black farmers.” “I just felt the need to converge and connect the two,” she said.

A Dollar Tree spokeswoman said some suppliers will be local, but so far none of the locations in the produce test group is among the  37 Dollar Tree stores in St. Louis and St. Louis County. Even without official connections to major retailers, urban ag and community gardening are growing in the region. Matt Schindler is executive director of Gateway Greening, which provides urban agriculture education and resources to help launch or expand community gardens and farms.

The organization typically works with about 50 new or expanding projects a year. It expects this year to see an 18% increase in projects over the 53 projects completed in 2019.  “Interest has gone up… and it’s been great to see,” said Schindler, noting that funds allocated for the year for supplies such as lumber were spent by March. “It was already going up, but then it’s severely jumped in a good way during COVID.”

On Suburban Avenue in Ferguson, a young father arrived at a community garden recently, mate and two children in tow, seeking food, according to the garden’s caretaker.

With no money to spend, he offered his watch. “He … asked could I help his family out,” said Ron Brown, operations manager at the garden. “They were hungry. And I said ‘yes you can get vegetables’.”

In a nondescript grocery bag, the family placed tomatoes, peppers, maybe a head of cabbage and some eggplant, Brown recalled. “The area of our garden is very low income,” he said. Residents without cars wander by the garden going to or from a nearby bus stop.

“Some of the ones they’ll come up and say ‘I’m really down on my luck, can you help me out.’ And I’ll say ‘I can’t give you money, but I can give you a bottle of water and I can give you some vegetables.’”

The solitary solicitation of the watch-bearing dad, and the parents and grandparents who regularly visit food pantries, give quiet testimony to the enduring need. Such requests continue, Brown said emphatically, taking a break from his weeding and pruning. Not as much as earlier in the year, but the need persists.

Karen Robinson-Jacobs is a Report for America corps member with The St. Louis American / Type Investigations in St Louis, Missouri, covering business. This story is part of ‘Barren Mile: COVID-19 and the fight against food apartheid,” the result of a Report for America initiative that brought Black-owned newsrooms from New York, Georgia, Missouri, and California together to look at how COVID-19 impacted food insecurity in their communities.