Food insecurity continues to be one of the most pressing needs throughout the St. Louis region. Having access to three meals a day is a constant challenge for far too many people. United Way takes pride in providing support to our nonprofit partners like Operation Food Search by hosting opportunities for those in need to get access to food as well as opportunities for generous people to donate. We spoke with Operation Food Search’s CEO, Kristen Wild, about the issue of hunger and their efforts to ease the burden on our neighbors in need.
Hunger and food insecurity have always been a problem throughout the St. Louis region, and within the past few years, the ongoing impacts of the pandemic and inflation have only compounded this issue. How has this impacted the way Operation Food Search supports the community?
During the pandemic, we certainly had to modify a lot of our programs with regard to the way we delivered and distributed food and utilized volunteers, but there were a couple of silver linings during the pandemic. There was a lot of attention drawn to the issue of food insecurity and a lot of individuals got creative with how they donated their time, food, and funding, and there was also a lot of government support as well.
We’re doing everything we can in regard to this issue. We’re identifying new partners to support our work and donate to us while trying to discover creative ways to help people, but there is not an easy answer to the issue of food insecurity, but we will continue to persist in our efforts.
How much has the community’s generosity helped you all in your mission to fight hunger?
We truly could not do what we do without the support of the community. Our financial support comes from individuals, foundations, corporations, faith organizations, and more. We’re fortunate to be in a community like St. Louis where there are so many folks who are generous, philanthropically oriented, and truly care about improving the community.
With this being the beginning of summer break for children, a lot of them will no longer have access to school meals, how does that affect food insecurity?
A lot of families struggle to feed their children during the summer months, that is why we have our Summer Meals Program that will be at about 40 locations this year providing free meals to kids 18-years-old and younger. We also have our St. Louis MetroMarket program that kicks off in early May and runs through December that is a mobile grocery store that provides affordable produce and nutritious food to areas that do not have large grocery operations.
We recognize that this issue is definitely a challenge, having to come up with those funds for food during the summer when school meals aren’t available can really make a difference in a family being able to pay rent, medical bills, or a utility bill, so we try to relieve that burden.
United Way will be partnering with Schnucks Markets on June 3rd to host our Illinois Division Food Drive in which all food donated will be distributed to Operation Food Search. How helpful will this be to your efforts to fight against hunger?
It will provide a wonderful influx of additional food. A lot of food drives take place around the time companies are thinking about something special they want to do for the holidays, so any type of food drives that take place over the summer is appreciated because it keeps our partner agencies’ shelves stocked. So, we’re so appreciative that United Way and Schnucks are coming together to support all of our neighbors in need who need a boost with their food resources.
One of United Way’s main impact areas is helping people with essential needs such as food. How much has United Way’s partnership meant to you all’s organization?
We’re so grateful to United Way for the funding we receive. It’s wonderful that every month there is a consistent check that we receive that we can put into any of our services whether it’s purchasing food, paying for staff, or helping us run our programs.
That financial support is really appreciated, and it is so beneficial to have such a strong partner like United Way that provides resources, networking opportunities with other organizations, professional development opportunities, and more that supports Operation Food Search as well as other nonprofits throughout the region.
The issue of food insecurity can be complicated and overwhelming at times, but are you optimistic about your ability to impact meaningful change in the fight against hunger?
I am optimistic. Hunger has been a pervasive issue for decades throughout our country and the world, but I have seen so much interest in addressing basic needs, like hunger. We’re also starting to see that more people are interested in making sure that people not only have food to eat, but have nutritious food that will help them lead healthy lives. There’s been an emphasis on making sure individuals have access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) as needed.
There has also been more support for Food as Medicine programs. We have several of those here at Operation Food Search and our goal is to prove that food should be a reimbursable healthcare expense. This is happening in some states, and we hope that Missouri will be amongst those within the next couple of years.
So overall, the outlook is bright. Obviously, the goal is to eradicate food insecurity, we likely won’t do that in my lifetime, but I definitely think we’re moving in the right direction.
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