A food pantry serving hundreds of families with incomes below certain federal levels in St. Clair County that has operated for three decades was ordered shut down by Cahokia Mayor Curtis McCall Jr., and its director was told to move all equipment from the premises within four days.
Christina Walker, the pantry’s director, called the move “political payback,” by the mayor, because she ran unsuccessfully in April for a position on the Cahokia School District 187 school board against candidates supported by McCall and his political backers; the McCall Team. The four McCall candidates won election to the board.
A spokeswoman for McCall, who would give only her first name “Janice” when contacted by telephone at the villages offices, said the mayor, “will have no comment.
“The food pantry is not shut down. It is under reconstruction,” she said before declining to explain what reconstruction means.
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Walker, who said she is paid a part-time salary of $12 an hour for 30 hours per week to run the pantry, said she was given a one-page letter on Friday delivered by a Cahokia police officer.
“You are hereby notified that you have been placed on paid administrative leave effective immediately,” it stated, “Upon receipt of this letter, return all village property to your work area, remove all personal belongings, and vacate the premises until further notice.” It was signed “President Curtis McCall.”
Walker said she tried unsuccessfully to contact McCall to learn why the food giveway operation was being closed.
Ryan Farmer, communications manager of the St. Louis Area Food Bank, which distributes food to hundreds of locations in Illinois and Missouri, said the Cahokia operation was one of the most successful and had passed out 384,000 pounds of food since January.
“It’s really disappointing to see a pantry closed down in an area where there is so much need,” Farmer said. He praised Walker, and said that she had received “glowing” performance reports during her tenure as director of the Cahokia pantry. He said Walker will be surpported in efforts to relocate the food distribution program.
Walker said families that expect to receive food on Wednesday and Thursday, the organization’s regular distribution days, “are going to be disappointed. We will have no food to give. I don’t know what they are going to do.”
On Monday afternoon in 90-degree heat, Walker and about a dozen volunteers were hauling large, empty freezers and other equipment out of the pantry’s location at 200 W. Third St., that she said has been the popular pantry’s location for 31 years and where 1,200 families a month are given food supplied by the St. Louis Area Food Bank. The food includes bakery items, meat, milk, cheese, canned food and fresh vegetables.
The pantry, organized as a state-licensed non-profit under the name Cahokia Community Basket, was inspected on March 25 by the East Side Health District. According to a copy of the inspection report, “no violations” were found.
Walker said she has rented a large locker at $115 a month to store the freezers, conveyor platforms and other equipment until the pantry’s board of directors can secure another location.
“Five in my family depend on this pantry to eat,” said Rosie Enders, who said she feared family members may go hungry without the food items passed out weekly.
“I think what they’re doing is terrible because so many families depend on this,” she said. “I’m thinking it has something to do with the new mayor.”
Cahokia resident Sabrina Saunders, a single mother supporting a son and a granddaughter, said, “A lot of people need help. I thought Christina (director) was doing a wonderful job. I’m going to have to find help somewhere else. I don’t know where.”
Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at email@example.com or 618-239-2625.