A Loaf of Bread, A Can of Beans and So Much More

Photo by Peggy Shulz

The motto of the Riverwest Food Pantry is, “Not by bread alone.” Those four words capture the operation of the pantry, in that it strives to provide as broad a selection of fresh, prepared and canned food as possible. The motto also speaks to figurative and longer-term objectives to improve the quality of life of the pantry’s clients.

Because “food insecurity” is so pervasive in Milwaukee’s neighborhoods, the immediate need for the pantry – to fill emergency gaps in a family’s food supply – likely won’t be going away anytime soon.

But the pantry’s director, Vincent Noth, has broader ideals. They include addressing the root causes of food insecurity, looking at the types of food that frequently come through the pantry and improving the diets of the pantry’s guests.

The generally-accepted definition of “food insecurity” is a lack resources for consistent access to adequate food. Noth, the pantry’s director, explains that for many residents of the Riverwest and Harambee neighborhoods served by the pantry, food insecurity is episodic and cyclical.

According to the pantry’s website, approximately 35% of residents in the Riverwest and Harambee neighborhoods have an income level at or below the poverty line, which is $23,850 for a family of four in 2014. In terms of being food insecure, the figures are about 18% of Riverwest residents, but more than 70% of those living in Harambee.

The Riverwest Food Pantry began in the late 1970’s as a project of the East Side Housing Action Committee (ESHAC). The two current locations, at Our Lady of Divine Providence/St. Casimir’s, 924 E. Clarke St., and Gaenslen, an MPS school, at 1250 E. Burleigh, have been home to the pantry for decades. Hundreds of volunteers work at growing, rescuing, sorting and preparing food, and thousands of neighborhood households donate food on a weekly basis.

Noth reports that the number of clients using the pantry varies between 500 and 1,000 per month. In 2012, more than 10,000 clients were served over the course of the year. Roughly one-third of all clients are children.

The Riverwest Food Pantry is a “choice pantry,” meaning clients are able to select from the available options on the day they visit. The majority of the food offered to clients is donated, primarily from four Catholic parishes: Three Holy Women, Ss. Peter & Paul, Our Lady of Divine Providence and Old St. Mary’s. Christ Redeemer Anglican Church, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and the St. John’s on the Lake Retirement Community also support the pantry.

In April of this year, the Riverwest Food Pantry was the beneficiary of a “Lenten Almsgiving” project at the four Catholic parishes listed above. An anonymous donor gave a $50,000 challenge grant and parishioners of the four parishes were able to meet and even exceed that amount, resulting in more than $100,000 coming to the Riverwest Food Pantry.

“The generous support of the four parishes ensures our successful launch (as an official non-profit organization) and will enable us to broaden our level of service beyond food,” Noth says.

Area grocery stores, bakeries and community organizations provide donations on a regular basis, in addition to the religious organizations. The pantry also is part of the Hunger Task Force, a free and local network of food providers.

Noth pointed out on a recent Tuesday at Gaenslen the table full of “mistakery” from the Colectivo bakery in Bay View. That’s Noth’s word for the fortunate accident of the bakery making too much of one product that won’t sell in a timely fashion in their coffee houses.

Noth also notes that providing clients with emergency food isn’t enough to solve the often long-term problems many of the pantry’s clients face, including diabetes and heart disease.

“Healthy food access is a real challenge,” Noth says, beyond just something to fill peoples’ stomachs.

Milwaukee is home to more than 80 food pantries and meal sites. But, “if that’s all they’re doing, what a waste,” Noth says.

“A food pantry should be a springboard, a platform to engage those must susceptible to all these other factors that create intractable poverty,” he says. “Our vision is to create an environment where new ideas can be introduced, including fresh produce, cooking demonstrations and gardening.”

“We need to transition from being just a food pantry to a community food center,” Noth says.

To help meet the specific goal of providing more fresh produce to pantry guests, a second vegetable and fruit garden was established this year, on the Our Lady of Divine Providence/St. Casimir’s grounds, in addition to the existing garden at the Three Holy Women/St. Rita’s location.

Meta House had been using four raised beds at the edge of the church parking lot, but recently decided to stop gardening. Julie Trafton, a member of the Riverwest Food Pantry’s strategic planning committee, put the seed in Vincent Noth’s head about taking advantage of the unused beds to grow fresh produce for pantry clients. The four smaller beds were taken apart and a single, larger raised bed was built along the northern border of the St. Casimir’s property.

Garden volunteers already have harvested more than 100 pounds of fresh produce from the St. Casimir’s site as of mid-July, according to Laurie Jacobs and Kathy Blair, the two volunteers who coordinate the new garden spot.

It is the hope of all those involved with both garden locations that food pantry clients will eventually establish their own, individual gardens and do what Trafton likes to call “square-foot gardening.”

“If we can show people that it’s really not hard to grow your own fresh stuff, and expose them to new produce they haven’t tried before, that will be great,” Trafton said.

Check out the pantry’s website at riverwestfoodpantry.org for more information, including days and hours of operation for the two Riverwest Food Pantry locations.