By Lisa Watson
On a recent Friday, Community Action Agency of St. Louis had a very unusual visitor. With a line out the door of people seeking help with their utility bills, a man parked his luxury car outside then walked up to the people in line, says Katherine Lucas-Johnson, the agency’s director of human resources and public relations. “He asked a woman, Are you here for help? How much do you need? She said $300, and he handed her $300. He asked another man, and handed him $500. Then he went into the building, dropped some cash on the counter, and said, I’ve been blessed, and I’m here to bless other people—no strings attached. And he threw some money up into the air before he left. It was like something out of a movie.
“We never had anything like that happen before. On Monday it was so crowded!” Lucas-Johnson says. “I think they thought that if they came in, he might come back.”
Even though the generous donor didn’t return, his spirit of goodwill is apparent in the work the staff of Community Action Agency does every day to help people get out of poverty, under the leadership of executive director Merline Anderson. The organization’s goal is to help people to become self-sufficient and stand on their own, Lucas- Johnson says. The agency’s many programs include prevention for at-risk youth, job training and employment assistance, family case management, and much more.
The agency’s newest effort is a farm that was created this year in Spanish Lake to help alleviate malnutrition. Based on a community- supported agriculture—or CSA—model, the farm offers memberships for $28 per week, which help subsidize low-income members, who can join at a rate of $12 per week. “For individuals who are unable to pay for a weekly share, they have the opportunity to volunteer to work on the farm,” adds Georgie Donahue, CAA’s program administration director. “While volunteering, the individual not only gets work credit, thus reducing the cost of their weekly share, but they are learning about growing and maintaining a garden, as well.”
In addition to exceeding the target value of $20 in produce for its members each week so far this year, the farm also has been able to give its excess harvest to area food pantries, Donahue notes. “The reason we’re doing this is so many low-income people don’t have access to fresh vegetables,” Lucas-Johnson explains. “Many people in the U.S. are malnourished, but people don’t understand it. If you look at pictures of people in Ethiopia who are emaciated, it’s easy to see they’re starving. But the poor people here are very often obese because they can’t get the appropriate foods. They live on carbohydrates and they get fat or get diabetes, but they’re really as malnourished as someone who’s emaciated.” For children, the lack of nutrition is even more critical because it can impair their physical growth and mental development, she adds.
To help support the farm and its community gardens throughout the metro area, CAA is hosting a benefit called ‘Seeds of Hope,’ at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 27, at the Trolley Room in the Visitor Center of Forest Park. The event will be hosted by News Channel 5’s Kelly Jackson. Along with live entertainment and interactive displays, television culinary expert Chef ‘E’ will perform cooking demonstrations.
“None of our families want to be poor, none of them want to seek assistance; they unfortunately are trapped in the poverty cycle and are trying desperately to get out,” Donahue says. “By providing opportunities like the community garden and the CSA farm, we are helping families gain skills they can use going forward.”