The line doubling in size every few moments outside of the building in St. Louis seemed out of place for the normally quiet block of Papin Street.
People weren’t waiting in the endless queue before the sun came up for the newest technology or a photo of their favorite celebrity.
They were waiting outside the dual 13-foot commercial garage doors connected to an otherwise modest warehouse, so they could receive their monthly donation of pet food.
“Our mission here is to feed pets so that they can stay in their home,” said Jacqui Zancanata, president of the Bi-State Food Pet Pantry. “We provide enough food for one month ... so they don’t have to relinquish them to shelters or dump them on the streets.”
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Every third Sunday of the month, from 9 to 11 a.m., the pet pantry serves between 180 and 200 people at their main location. Residents of Missouri and Illinois, primarily St. Louis and the metro-east, are eligible to receive the one pound of pet food per 10 pounds the animal weighs.
Relying solely on donations, they are able to give away collars, litter, blankets and nearly 15,000 pounds of pet food every month. Many of these items are collected in small, single contributions, collected in various pet-related stores and shelters.
“I can not imagine not being able to feed (my pets) or myself ... because I couldn’t afford to take care of them,” Zancanata said. “These people are so dedicated to their animals. They wait for hours to get in line. That keeps me going. We really are helping them, and if I was ever in that line, I would want someone to help me too.”
Community cries answered
Sporting a discolored army fatigue jacket, the classic high-and-tight haircut and a sun-faded POW-MIA bumper sticker on the back of his pickup truck, Granite City resident Timothy S. Cavins was once in the military until a head injury left him unable to fulfill his duties.
In between searching for jobs, he looks to his “family” at the pet pantry to help feed his two cats, Chloe and Tippy, as well as his chocolate lab, Molly.
“My animals are everything. Some people might say ‘Why are you struggling? Why are trying to take care of animals?,’ said 57-year-old Cavins. “Well, they’re mine. They love me. They care about me.”
Nearly 29 percent of people in St. Louis are in poverty, according to recent census data. They find themselves having to choose between feeding their pets or feeding themselves.
The pantry only requires a photo ID, proof of governmental help and documentation that the pet has been spayed or neutered.
Many, like Cavins, have depleted their money trying to keep their pets fed. The jobs they find are sporadic at best and the pay can barely support one person, let alone a family of four-legged friends.
“I’d have no way of taking care of my animals without their help. ...They have always been here for me,” Cavins said. “Standing in line I find people in the same situation I am in, and we just bond together.”
That camaraderie is the reason Zelda Milner, a 48-year-old St. Louis native, has been on both sides of the line during the past three years. Alongside her cousin, Milner was a recipient who wanted to give back to an organization that helped her out so much.
Nicknamed “mama,” she is a designated peacekeeper for the pantry. Her personality stands much taller than her unassuming small stature. She claims walking up and down the line evokes a feeling that “mama’s home,” putting most on their best behavior.
Her strategy relies heavily on the respect she has earned from relating to the struggle many of the people face in line.
These people are so dedicated to their animals. They wait for hours to get in line. That keeps me going. We really are helping them, and if I was ever in that line, I would want someone to help me too.
Jacqui Zacanata, president of Bi-State Pet Food Pantry
“It really is a community,” Milner said. “You don’t know how long each individual in line has been unemployed for or how long they have been in need. Thank God there is a pantry here for them.”
Zancanata is fond of many individuals who have established a positive relationship with not only her but also with the staff. She can name about six recipients she knows will always find her, give her a hug and catch up before they leave.
Toward the end of a cold December about two years ago, Zancanata remembers helping a woman confirm some basic information so she could receive a donation. She gently reminded the woman sitting with her two dogs that next month is re-certification month and to bring any documents necessary.
“I probably won’t be here in January,” Zancanata recalls the lady replying calmly.
She explained that her and her two dogs all had some variations of different cancers. Zancanata is happy to report that the woman and her dogs all beat their cancer scare and still come to the pantry.
“That was something that I never expected anyone say to me,” Zancanata said. “I pray for her every day, and she sees me every distribution. They just really make this worth it for me.”
“If I don’t see them every month… I don’t know if I can make it through the month.”
A helping hand
The trip from Peoria to St. Louis has a different meaning as Angela and Nathan Daniels parked their car outside the warehouse on Papin Street.
Hitting the road early in the morning, the Daniels will drive nearly six hours round trip just to donate time for the shelter.
“I’m glad to do it,” Angela said. “And I can’t wait to do it again.”
Working as an animal care specialist for the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, the 44-year-old found out about the pantry from word of mouth. Any fatigue she suffers from the drive is washed out by her energy to help a community she feels close to.
“There is an obvious need here, and there are hungry animals here,” Angela said. “It just makes my spirit burst with happiness to see hard work pay off.”
Tom Scheifler, a 53-year-old software contractor from St. Louis, has been volunteering for almost two years. He is hard to miss, as his tall frame pushes the heavy carts of pet food out to smiling recipients.
The Bi-State Pet Food Pantry works in a few different parts. The first is to collect donations, mostly from individual parties, and store them at a warehouse at 4015 Papin St. shared with an animal feeding supply business.
People donate food, litter, treats, leashes and toys, amongst various other goodies that are typically given away on a first-come, first-serve basis.
The night before a donation, food is mixed into large white bags that can hold about 1,000 pounds at a time. The two types of food — one with a main ingredient of corn and the other meat — are repackaged and dated for next day distribution. The food is mixed this way so animals can adjust to new diets easily.
Scheifler has spent many Saturday’s mixing the food, only to come back and wheel it out the next day in large, gray utility carts.
“Doing delivery and people serving is a really enriching experience,” Scheifler said. “You get to interact with people, and they are so thankful and grateful.”
Working through St. Louis City Kitties, the pet pantry also delivers to about 20 home-bound people once a month.
“People shouldn’t struggle to feed their pets,” Scheifler said. “If you can’t do it, come here. We want to help this community.”
The other side of the river
In a perfect world, the pet pantry doesn’t exist.
However, Zancanata is eying an expansion to East St. Louis by the end of the year, acknowledging the overwhelming feeling that pet pantries will be around for a long time.
This has inspired people like Glen Carbon resident Sandra Eaves to start their own pet pantry. As the president of the Spay Neuter Illinois Pets Alliance, she saw an “overwhelming need” to continue Zancanata’s vision in the Alton area.
The coalition formed to create the RiverBend Pet Food Pantry, which includes the Metro East Humane Society, Partners for Pets and SNIP. The coalition realized that many couldn’t afford to travel far to get the help they needed.
Why should your grandma and grandpa who all of the sudden have a medical problem and have all these medical bills … have to choose between eating and feeding the thing that brings them the most comfort in the world? No, we should be there for them.
Sandra Eaves, president of RiverBend Pet Food Pantry
Eaves wants to bring the help to people “who already have enough hardships.”
“We formed the coalition, did an outreach program in the poorest neighborhoods in Alton, had a pet in the park day and just found out that these people need help,” Eaves said. “People in the community need help.”
Zancanata invited Eaves to come out and see the operation, offering help at every corner to make sure the RiverBend pantry’s May 22 opening is as smooth as possible. Eaves studied every step closely, making a second visit just to help out on the volunteer line.
Currently, the RiverBend Pet Food Pantry operates out of a 12-by-16-foot mobile home donated by the city of Alton. Eaves is hopeful to help around 200 people but “doesn’t have a clue” how many people will actually show up.
She is just excited to help her community.
“People think sometimes as community service as people, but when you are helping the animals, you are helping the people,” Eaves said. “Why should your grandma and grandpa who all of the sudden have a medical problem and have all these medical bills … have to choose between eating and feeding the thing that brings them the most comfort in the world?”
“No, we should be there for them.”