Diversity has become the theme song of Riverwest. Partly it is a catchword, but it does reflect a significant economic reality. Though some residential properties here are selling in the $150,000 range, plenty of people struggle to stay afloat financially. While coffeehouses open and expand, some of our neighbors cannot afford to put a meal on the table. Front and center among local efforts to serve needy people is Donna Fletcher and the food pantries she coordinates — one at St. Casimir’s hall and one at Gaenslen School. She estimates the pantries serve about 500 people each month; the exact number for June was 269. A long-time Riverwest resident, Donna taught middle-school children at Fratney and Gaenslen schools until she retired in 2003. She recalls that for many years she used to imagine helping at the Milwaukee Hunger Task Force when she would pass by their former headquarters on Vienna Street just west of Humboldt. It was natural, then, for her to get involved when people from Riverwest public elementary schools came up with the idea of a opening a food pantry. They were disturbed about children coming to school hungry. Riverwest’s food pantries work like this: if a person shows up at either site with a photo ID and proof that his/her address is within the 53212 or 53211 zip code area, they are eligible for a monthly allocation of food. Depending on family size, they can make selections of meats/protein, bread/cereal, canned fruits and vegetables (fresh produce is occasionally available), and toiletries. About a dozen people come in every week to staff the Saturday pantry at St. Casimir’s. Some help with registration, others hand out foodstocks or serve coffee and juice. The ultimate welcoming touch is provided by two women who bring in fresh, home-baked cookies. The St. Casimir food pantry might be located in a church basement, but the feeling of the space is respectful and warm. The pantry at St. Casimir’s offers services as well. Teresa Flaherty, parish nurse, answers health questions and helps people apply for low-income health insurance. She also checks blood pressure and gives flu shots. With volunteers Jeff Johnson and Lynn Gruber, Teresa has set up a “job center” with employment postings and a county bus map to show people how to get to a new job site. The job center recently offered a training session teaching how to apply for a job, and there are plans for a mentoring network to help new employees. At the Tuesday afternoon pantry, Donna gets help from the Gaenslen School community. It is common practice for the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders to contribute an item of food for the pantry as the price of admission to a school dance. School social worker Heather Fraaza receives the names of needy clients from shelters around the city. People who dial the 211 Community Info Line for emergency help are often directed through her to the Gaenslen pantry if they live in 53212 or 53211. Whereas the St. Casimir site relies heavily on contributions from the Riverbank Catholic Connection and volunteers from Our Lady of Divine Providence parish, the Gaenslen site receives regular donations from the nearby community of Quakers and the weavers who meet in the school basement; those who volunteer on Tuesdays are usually current or retired Gaenslen staff members. Like the St. Casimir site, the Gaenslen pantry offers an assortment of clothing along with stocks of food. Neither location will serve people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Unlike the St. Casimir site, the Gaenslen pantry always offers infant formula. Both pantry sites are supported by the Milwaukee Hunger Task Force. Besides advocating for laws and social programs to achieve food security, the Task Force has extensive food collection networks, including the successful food drive of local letter carriers in May. The Task Force provides basic stocks for the food pantries, but Donna and her network of donors are expected to come up with additional contributions. Donna helped set up the pantry at Gaenslen and worked there as a volunteer until she took on the role of coordinator for both pantry sites. In the beginning she was paid for her work as coordinator; since the grant that covered her salary ran out, she has been unpaid. When she talks about the food pantries, Donna emphasizes how gratified she is at the way people have stepped in to take initiative and get involved. She feels especially supported by Fr. Gerry Hessel, pastor at Our Lady of Divine Providence. With heart-felt dedication to helping the hungry people he meets in this neighborhood, he helps collect donations of food, has arranged for storage and freezer space at St. Casimir’s, and volunteers on Saturday mornings. Liz Fisher, a retired Gaenslen staff member who regularly helps out at the Tuesday pantry, is awed by the unsung generosity of the food pantry volunteers, remarking how even former clients of the food pantry “want to be able to give back in some way, shape or form.” Donna concurs: “Without the donations and the volunteer efforts of neighborhood residents, the food pantries would not exist.” What brings people out to help at a food pantry? A sampling of responses from volunteers brings comments like these: “It’s no big deal. It’s the least I can do.” “We are so blessed; the least we can do is help out others who might be going through hard times.” “I just like being here.” For Donna Fletcher, “It’s mostly about gratitude. I feel that I have so much,” she says, “and I want to give back.” She and her network of donors and volunteers are humble about their work, but every week they quietly do what they can to alleviate hunger in our neighborhood. Anyone who would like to volunteer or make donations to the food pantries can contact Donna Fletcher at 704-6046, at her office at Gaenslen School at 267-5700, or at these locations: Gaenslen Food Pantry 1250 East Burleigh St. (enter from parking lot in back of building, Door #14) Tuesdays: 4:30-6:30 Riverwest Food Pantry 924 East Clarke St. (first door inside parking lot on Weil St.) Saturdays: June-August 8:30-10:30, September-May 9:00-11:00 Donna wants all neighborhood gardeners to know that any produce that they harvest this season will be much appreciated at the food pantries. Clients are literally hungry for fresh food.
What is food security?
Household food security is the assured access of all people to enough food for an active healthy life. Households are food insecure if they have uncertain or limited access to food through normal channels. Who is food insecure in Wisconsin? During 1996-2000…. – Almost 9% of households in Wisconsin were food insecure; – Almost one-third of poor households were food insecure; – One-third of single-mother households were food insecure; – 30% of African American households were food insecure; – 24% of households with a disabled member were food insecure. Information provided by Hunger Task Force