By KARA JEFFERS
A challenge has been issued to the citizens of St. Charles County. On Sept. 11, collect 500,000 pounds of food to donate to the St. Louis Area Food Bank.
Who has issued such a staggering challenge? The citizens themselves.
The “Fill Up the Pick-Up Challenge” is a food drive organized and executed by volunteers – neighbors working with neighbors to help – you guessed it, neighbors. That’s it. No budget, no business or organization affiliation, except working with and donating to the food bank. Its premise is as simple as its roots.
Last April, Scott Huegerich, an Oakville resident, realized from a Facebook post that the pandemic was going to increase food insecurity. As he sat on his couch, quarantining like the rest of America, he decided he could take action in a socially distant way. After some online searching related to the best places to donate food, Huegerich contacted his neighbors with a plan.
“‘If you would like to donate some food as well, just have the food laid out at the end of your driveway and I’ll drive around next Saturday and take it to the food bank.’ It was that simple,” Huegerich said. “It was contact-free and people in our subdivision could all contribute if they wanted to.”
Calling around, Huegerich got the sense that people wanted to do something to help society in those difficult times, so he contacted a few other neighborhoods and made the food drive a challenge. Twelve days after his internet search, the first “Fill Up the Pick-Up” challenge took place and collected 16,000 pounds of food.
“I knew we were going to be doing a lot of good for the people that were receiving the food,” Huegerich said. “(But) I had no idea how happy this drive would make people who were volunteering and making it happen.
“So I was surrounded by this huge amount of goodwill and happiness and cheer that was very evident in all the people volunteering.”
Volunteers and donors were eager to repeat the event. The second drive in December 2020 brought in 40,000 pounds of food.
In February 2021, planning started in earnest for the next drive. Volunteers negotiated drop-off locations, designed websites, ran social media pages, and encouraged others to alert their communities about what’s going down on Sept. 11.
“This is really a community, neighbor-driven initiative,” Huegerich said. “(This year) we wanted to repeat that same thing in other areas but needed time to identify people in those regions who could help spread the word.”
The groups’ efforts have paid off. This year’s drive will cover 1,200 square miles of the St. Louis metro area. Neighborhoods from 24 different ZIP codes have pledged participation. Small businesses, auto dealerships, churches, football teams and all eight regional Best Buys have pledged to send vehicles to drop-off sites.
Currently, 58 neighborhoods are participating. Individuals who want to get involved can coordinate a pick-up effort in their neighborhood (sign up at fillupthepickup.com) or drop off individual food donations at one of 12 drop-off locations, including:
• Wentzville Christian Church, 1507 Hwy. Z
• Mid Rivers Mall, 1600 Mid Rivers Mall in St. Peters
The St. Louis Area Food Bank will deploy its entire fleet of vehicles to those drop-off areas to collect donations and take them back for sorting and distribution.
The food bank partners with over 500 hunger relief programs in 26 counties in Missouri and Illinois, reaching more than 392,000 people every year. In 2019,10.5% of American households experienced food insecurity, and early estimates indicate that around 50 million people were food insecure in 2020.
“Food insecurity is something that’s very easy to overlook because the vast majority of Americans have an abundance of food surrounding them,” Huegerich said. “But there is a real systemic problem with this and it’s actually more profound than what I would have thought prior to getting involved with this.”
One woman who donated food at the first drive said she was a regular customer at food pantries 6 months prior. She specifically donated mac ‘n cheese, noting that she saw a lot of families at the pantries she visited and wanted kids to have something they enjoyed eating.
“There is a lack of unity in our society. There are too many instances where it is us against them. And I believe things like compassion for others, caring for our neighbors and doing nice things – those are ideas that everybody can get behind. I think we just need things like this in our society to make us remember there is good out there,” Huegerich said.
With two weeks remaining until the day of the drive, anyone can take initiative to head up efforts in their neighborhood, he added.
“They can sign up at fillupthepickup.com or on our Facebook page. We’ve got flyers on our website that are customizable and that people can print out to notify their neighbors about how to participate,” Huegerich said.
On Sept. 11, those who took the lead for their neighborhood will drive around and pick up donations left on driveways, or front porches, or at a central gathering place such as the neighborhood pool. Regardless of how the food is collected, the lead will then take it to one of the drop-off locations, which will be staffed by volunteers from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“There are a lot of people that want to make a difference in our community, but they don’t know how to do it. And this is a really easy straightforward way for people to be involved,” Huegerich said. “But the really cool thing about this is it’s turning everyday citizens into community activists.
“I think they will have this internal feeling of ‘I made a difference.’ And if they believe that, which they should believe it, that will make them believe they can make a difference in other aspects of our society. It’s a totally enabling thing.”