Every year, the holiday season is marked by the appearance of sparkling lights, Christmas trees and other festive accessories.
One set of annual adornments isn't about decoration, however. The ubiquitous grocery store donation bins, piloted by Channel 12's Food for Families drive, are a reminder that not everyone is as fortunate as those bustling to polish off their holiday shopping lists.
The donations placed in those bins may be a simple gesture, but they're just the beginning of a much larger and more intricate process. Together with an army of volunteers, the staff at Hunger Task Force makes collecting, managing and distributing food to Milwaukee County's 80 food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters its mission not just during the holidays, but year-round.
"We're giving our donors a one-week break to just kind of chill about a little bit," jokes Sherrie Tussler, executive director at Hunger Task Force. The organization has just completed its Thanksgiving rush, and while the flurry of volunteers has temporarily subsided, the piled-high boxes and bins of food serve as a reminder that there is no "downtime."
"This is all food that's been coming in from the stores. Once that food is collected it all comes back to Hunger Task Force," she explains. "What we do is we bring in 6-7,000 volunteers annually who will help sort the food."
The process begins in the very first room of the building, where collections straight from the donation sites get organized by type off of a conveyor belt.
"Let's say we just got food in from Food for Families and it's in these huge watermelon boxes," says Tussler. "You're here on 'Dairy;' you're going to be looking for anything that's milk-related. What we're doing is we're pulling products off and we're creating inventory that will, in turn, go out to the warehouse."
Once in the warehouse – which is adjacent to the sorting room – more volunteers and additional staff are at the ready to reorganize the newly sorted products into orders.
"Now, how do we decide who's getting what? There was a lot of effort that was put into figuring out how they would distribute the food to our local food pantry network," says Tussler. "Hunger Task Force is sort of like the great equalizer in the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County, because we make sure that each pantry gets exactly as much food as it needs to serve the people that it served in the prior month.
"As each food pantry coordinator orders their food from us they can decide based on who they're serving what foods they need in stock. Each coordinator at each program knows what they need, so we send them an electronic order, like a menu, and they check off the things that they need, and back here we'll pull that order for them."
Unlike in stores, where non-perishable donations are king, the Hunger Task Force facility also serves as a donation center for frozen goods and produce, which it can expedite in a truck shipment or – like in the case of their holiday turkey and ham drives – keep cold in the on-site freezer.
"The frozen stuff we can just grab and go, but the cold stuff is mostly produce and it's very sensitive, and so we need to get it out right away," says Tussler. "You're never going to stick it in a cooler and wait. The produce from our farm, the produce that comes into the building that's donated, stick it right on a refrigerated truck and go, go, go.
We're always welcoming people to donate any kind of meat that they can. People don't often think, 'How am I going to get this perishable thing to my local food pantry?' The freezer allows us to do that."
This part of the donation process is also reliant on volunteers – and, according to volunteer "Dock Greeter" Amy Klemp, is also one of the most rewarding.
"Volunteers or smaller organizations will come in with food donations, and we help them bring it in, we weigh it, and then we fill out a little form to make sure they get a little thank you in the mail. It's kind of cool the variety of people coming in," she says. "Last week, this mother and daughter came in and they brought in all of their favorite foods. The girl – she was probably 8 or 9 – got to weigh it, and she really enjoyed that.
"Last Monday, this guy drives through and goes, 'Do you guys need some turkeys?' And we say, 'Yeah.' So he comes back like a half an hour later with four turkeys. That was kind of neat – he went shopping for himself and for us, too."
Now, with the Hunger Task Force's Lend A Helping Ham holiday drive back in full swing, the need for volunteers – and donations – is as great as ever.
"Imagine what it's like to live off of food from a pantry. Peanut butter. Canned tuna. Boxed meals. You're not going to get meat, so if you get that turkey or ham it's like, 'Good lord, look at the size of this thing!'" says Tussler.
"There are so many people depending on us. There are pantries all over town that need volunteers; there's plenty of work to be done. It's got to be a well-oiled machine – on the customer service side and the delivery side, as well. Without that network, Milwaukee would be in very dire straits. We're going to make use of as many humans as possible to get the job done."
Contrary to her natural state of being, Renee Lorenz is a total optimist when it comes to Milwaukee. Since beginning her career with OnMilwaukee.com, her occasional forays into the awesomeness that is the Brew City have turned into an overwhelming desire to discover anything and everything that's new, fun or just ... "different."
Expect her random musings to cover both the new and "new-to-her" aspects of Miltown goings-on, in addition to periodically straying completely off-topic, which usually manifests itself in the form of an obscure movie reference.