Milwaukee food banks, pantries see shortages during coronavirus

 google.com  04/10/2020 11:03:50   Talis Shelbourne

What could be wrong with stocking your cupboards full of soup, pastaand canned vegetables as youwait out the coronavirus pandemic?

It could lead to food shortages at food banks and pantries, says Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Hunger Task Force, one of the states largest food banks.

The supply chain for food is stressedby the pandemicand peoples efforts to prepare themselves for long-term shelter-in-place orders. That sort of stockpiling has led stores to place limits on the amount of food that can be purchased, even by those running food banks.

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Food banks receive donations from the federal government, the public and purchase food from grocery stores,which isthen distributed among food pantries and other social service agencies, such as soup kitchensand homeless shelters.

Grocery stores are a critical part of the supply chain.

Lets say Im running a pantry in Manitowoc and Im connected to Piggly Wiggly," Tussler said. "Piggly Wiggly cant get the supply they need so its limiting every single customer.

Heres how shortages of both food and volunteers are affecting food banks and food pantries in the region.

The challenge for Milwaukee food banks

Tussler has been leading Hunger Task Force for 23 years. Even during the recession in 2008, the strain on food supply has never been as difficult as it is now, she said.

We saw an increase in 2008 (that) took four months to unfold, not two weeks  its like rapid-fire now, she said.

In fact, Hunger Task Force hasinstructedfood pantries to reduce how much they provide. At the beginning of March, pantries were encouraged to provide customers 14 days of food per month; now thats down to 3-5 days per month.

Scott Marshall, Feeding America's director of development and communications, said the food bankhas both fewer donations from grocery stores and fewer volunteers.

Its that double whammy of increased need and a bit of a strain in the food system, he said. About half of the food we receive are donations from retail outlets, mostly grocery stores, (and) grocery stores have had increased purchases from the public, which meant less food available for donation.

"And then on our end, any food that is donated, we put it through a sorting process & and that requires volunteers.

Feeding America tried to get ahead of the pandemic bypurchasingsix truckloads of food from wholesalers six weeks ago, Marshall said. Three of those loads, which weigh an average of more than30,000 pounds, have been delivered.

Feeding America has also received food from wholesalers, such as Campbells, Kroger and other retailers, and despite the current crisis, Marshall said Feeding America is still committed to being a reliable source offood even it must bemore creative about where it gets it.

But some pantries don't havethat option.

Some Milwaukee food pantries have closed

Tussler said many volunteer-operated pantries have closed due to a lack of volunteers; Hunger Task Force has gone from supplying 47 to 32 in the past two weeks.

The high-need areas are central city north and south, and thats where weve seen the pantries closing, she said. There are entire neighborhoods on the north side without pantries.

With soup kitchens closed and the presence of the coronavirus, food insecurity rates are expected to skyrocket.

The number of people seekingfood at COA Goldin Center, 909 E. North Ave.,has doubled from an average of about 800 people a month to 1,527 in March, saidNichole Thompson, director of community and family services.

At UMOS Food Pantry, 2701 S.Chase Ave., an average of 97 people a day, up from 35 before the pandemic hit, are coming for food, said UMOS spokesmanRod Ritcherson. In the pantry's waiting room, chairs are spaced 6 feet apart and all bags are prepacked.

At House of Peace, a part of Capuchin Community Services,staff are serving more than 100 households every day for curbside pickup at 1702 W. Walnut St.The pantry cut morning services and now provides food only in the afternoonto give staff a break, saidBrother Robert Wotypka, ministry director of Capuchin Community Services.

And at Siggenauk Center Food Pantry, 1050 W. LaphamBlvd., led by Sam LaFountain and six volunteers, they have gone from serving 70 or so people to double that; on April 3, they served 148, she said.

LaFountain, who joined the church which runs the pantry in September of last year, wasn'texpecting the rush of customers when she took control of the pantry. The pantry is so small that storage space for the amount of food needed to meet demand has become a concern.

COA is the only open pantry in the 53206 ZIP code. Thompson works with six other staff membersto provide the food, which comes from Hunger Task Force, Feeding America, Just One More Ministry, the Bread Ministry and donations.

Most of the pantries receive food from both the large food banks. Most of the citys impoverished seek food from pantries. Being in need is tough, Thompson said.

Coming to a food pantry is a pride thing," she said. "You dont go because you want to, you go because you need it.

Among those already suffering from food insecurity, transportation remains a barrier

The pandemic-driven shortages facing food pantries have compounded the deep needs of those alreadysuffering from food insecurity in Milwaukee.

Food insecurity is defined by Feeding America as"a households inability to provide enough food for every person to live an active, healthy life."

The food insecurity rate for Milwaukee County was 15.4% in 2017, 5 percentage points above theaverage rate for Wisconsin, according to a study from Feeding America.

Melody McCurtis, deputy director and organizer of Metcalfe Park Community Bridges, lives in Metcalfe Park, which she describes as chronically food insecure.

We have a senior building on 28th Street. Before all this, in January, we actually did a survey and 52 of those seniors of the 80-unit building already had an issue with food. They were paying their rent and their medications before they would spend their last money on food. People were suffering with food before the pandemic.

A lack of good transportation options makes it worse.

"For people that need food, theres so many barriers to access. If (parents) have to leave with all the kids, theyre risking exposure, and trying to carry all that (food) back home is not realistic, McCurtis said.

Even those with FoodShare benefits are struggling because there are limits on what they can buy, or when they get to a store, the food they need may already be sold out.

If youre depending on somebody to drive you to the store and you dont get everything you need, thats major, McCurtis said.

Thats why McCurtis, with nine others, have teamed up with Jewish Community Pantry. Every other Friday, they pick up goods from Feeding America, sort them and deliver them to homes in Metcalfe Park along with other items such as tissue, soapand toothpaste.

McCurtis credited Northwestern Mutual, United Way, Safe and Sound and other groups for providing funds, transportation, diapers, trash bagsand other items.

Average people shouldnt be buying up everything, she said. If something is a WIC item, they shouldnt be buying that because people on that program cant switch out items.

All of us, Thompson said, should try to bea little more selfless.

Look out for your brother and sister and for humankind. Just be mindful of others  dont just hoard because you have the means to.

Contact Talis Shelbourne at (414) 403-6651 or tshelbourn@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @talisseer and message her on Facebook at @talisseer.

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How you canhelp

Tussler, McCurtis,Marshall and others say:

  • Avoid over-shopping at grocery stores and donate unnecessary items to a food pantry in your area (be sure to call ahead to determine if they are accepting donations and what the needs are).
  • Offer to be a proxy for someone who is elderly, has a disability or is otherwise vulnerable. Many programs will allow this with an ID and a note from the program recipient. You can also provide transportation for those who need it to grocery stores and food pantries.
  • If you are newly unemployed, apply forFoodshare, WIC, unemployment and other programs first before going to a food pantry. As Tussler put it, Food pantries are for people who have little or no money and little or no food.
  • Volunteer at a local pantry(once again, call ahead to ensure they are accepting volunteers).
  • Support your local food pantry with a financial donation to Hunger Task Force, Feeding America, COA Goldin Center, UMOS Food Pantry, Capuchin Community Services, Metcalfe Park.
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