By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Dec 07, 2013 at 5:14 AM

"This looks creepy," says Sherrie Tussler, who is the executive director of the Hunger Task Force.

Tussler is holding a massive jar of strawberry jelly. The lid is sticky and the color is off – somewhere between grape and mystery-berry. She sets the donated jar aside.

"We have an expression here," she says. "Beggars can be choosy."

The Hunger Task Force was founded in 1974 by parents who were concerned about children going to school hungry. In 1977, the food bank began and today, the organization works to end hunger through both advocacy and by distributing food to a network of food pantries, homeless shelters and soup kitchens – free of charge.

Currently, the Hunger Task Force is in the middle of the annual Food For Families Campaign which offers easy ways for people to donate food via grocery store bins, online or in person.

During our recent afternoon at the Hunger Task Force, we spoke with Tussler about homelessness, hunger, volunteerism, children, advocacy and dignity.

We also talked about bizarre-to-us British canned goods and agreed that Twinkies are not food. Tussler’s engaging personality vacillates from witty and quirky to look-you-dead-in-the-eye serious.

"It’s not so much the non-profit piece that gets me excited as much as working as an advocate on behalf of people who are victims or not treated fairly," says Tussler. "It’s just nice to be a voice in the room making sure people have basic needs when no one else is thinking about people who don’t have any money." How long have you worked at the Hunger Task Force?

Sherrie Tussler: Seventeen years. Before I came to Hunger Task Force, I did not understand how pervasive hunger is, especially for children. One in four children in Milwaukee is living in a house that does not have enough food for that child to eat.

And prior to coming here, I was the founding executive director at the Hope House and when I first came to the homeless shelter, I was absolutely offended that people were sleeping outside in North America and I thought we should end homelessness. I still believe to this day that we can and we should.

OMC: How many people does Hunger Task Force service every month?

ST: We supply food for 34,000-40,000 people every month. The Hunger Task Force is a food bank and we supply food to a network made up of 60 food pantries in Milwaukee.

One in eight people is using the food stamp program now and I’m here to say that the food stamp program doesn’t have wide-scale fraud and that nothing has changed about the rules of the program over the last few years.

But the enrollment has gone up and it’s gone up because people are income eligible. We’ve created a significantly lower class of people who need help just to put food on the table.

OMC: What is the demographic of the people you serve?

ST: We don’t really keep track of that information because it doesn’t matter to us. If you’re hungry, you’re hungry.

We are going to see a high number of minorities, but we live in a segregated community where you’re less likely to be employed if you are African American. And you’re going to have more struggles if you don’t speak English. We’re going to make sure everyone gets the help they need.

Anybody can hit the skids in their life and it’s the community’s responsibility to make sure that there’s somebody there to help pick people up, make sure there’s a roof over their head, food on the table and clothes on their back, because they’re not going to get "better" without that kind of help.

And if you’re in a position to help, because you figured it out and you’re already "better," then help. Do something good. Don’t be mean.

OMC: What is the ideal food donation? People often think cans, but what do you like to see the most?

ST: We tell people to donate something they would feed their kids, or their neighbor’s or friend’s kids, since one in two of the people we assist is a child. Ramen noodles? They get plenty of starches. We like to see peanut butter, tuna, cereal, canned vegetables, fruit juices. If we want people to be healthy we need to give healthy food at the pantry.

OMC: So what if someone donates a box of Twinkies?

ST: They’re going to end up in the dumpster. Because they’re not food. Sorry Twinkie people, but they’re not. Everybody deserves a treat, I get that, but we’re not the Hunger Treat Force. We’re the Hunger Task Force and we’re trying to get healthy food to people.

OMC: You get a lot more donations during the holidays, right?

ST: Yes. So we use this time to, of course, help people with food but also to spark interest in people to help in January and February. Hunger is year ‘round.

OMC: How can someone volunteer and how many volunteers do you have?

ST: You can sign up to volunteer online. We have 7,000 volunteers who sort food, collect food, build boxes, work at the farm. Downstairs right now we have volunteers packing frosting into little bags so we can decorate cookies at the holiday train this weekend.

Some of our volunteers come once, some are here 40 hours a week. We welcome anyone.

OMC: Tell me about the Hunger Task Force farm.

ST: Yes, we have a 200-acre farm in Franklin. It used to be a part of the prison system but not anymore. We provide a lot of fresh food for people, along with a recipe so they know how to cook, say, a bok choy or a squash. And not a Martha Stewart recipe. One that uses the other ingredients in the bag.

We also have client choice. People can come into the building and choose their fruits and veggies and the cereal their children will eat. That way we avoid food waste.

We also encourage food pantry coordinators to request food that represents the diet, the religion and the culture of the people they assist. In that way we can respect what people want.

Our view is that beggars can be choosy. We offer dignity to all people. And these people are in need and asking for our help and so we reach out and support them in a way that supports their crisis situation instead of judging them.

OMC: Were you ever personally hungry?

ST: Yes. I went to Georgia and could not get a job because I did not have a proper twang about my voice and I was struggling and applied for food stamps when my health was affected and I got really thin.

I later came back to Wisconsin and got three jobs and waited for trickle down economics to help me. And it really never did. But I was excited when I could pay my rent. And one time, I bought a muffler for my car and I was like, "Yay! I bought a muffler!"

OMC: So what do you say to someone who says hungry people should get a job or another job instead of free food?

ST: I often think people are not really thinking this through. They are repeating stuff they heard from someone else or on the news. What does "get a job" mean to someone living in a neighborhood where 75 percent of the adults don’t have jobs because there aren’t any jobs? And how far can one travel without a car? In rural Wisconsin there’s lots of joblessness and consequently, a lot of hunger. People need to remember that most people don’t want to be homeless or hungry.

OMC: So what can people do to help?

ST: Even if people don’t eat it themselves, a lot of people love ham during the holidays, and so they could donate to our "Helping Ham" program. I know, it’s not as catchy as our "Turkey Ticker" program, but ... Also, if people buy a ticket to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, $1 from every ticket sale goes to the Hunger Task Force.

There’s also a fundraiser at Great Lakes Distillery this weekend. On Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. they’re making the world’s biggest Bloody Mary.

And of course we always welcome volunteers. We will be doing a lot of food starting after Jan. 1. And the farm will start up again in March and we always need volunteers there, too.

But the easiest thing one can do is go to the grocery store and donate an item you would feed to your child by putting it in one of our Food For Families blue bins.

These bins are available all year, too. Churches or schools or offices can request one at any time of year and put it out to collect food.

OMC: Can kids volunteer, too?

ST: Absolutely. Kids that can read can volunteer to sort food. But parental involvement is necessary. If you’re bringing your kids, you might as well be involved, too. Come on down and volunteer with your kid!

OMC: Is the food at Hunger Task Force free?

ST: Yes. The Hunger Task Force’s motto is "we feed today and we work to end future hunger." If you sell food, you’re not ending future hunger, there’s no motivation. And so if we’re doing it for free we’re always pressured to end future hunger. And the way you do that is through sound public policy.

I am a registered lobbyist not afraid to say it. I lobby so that the WIC program, the food stamp program, the school meals programs are not only fully enrolled but properly administered.

This is one of the aspects of the Hunger Task Force that is really special. Most groups are either advocating or doing direct service and we’re blending those things.

We’re a unique model with a lasting tradition. We have never sent an invoice out of this building and this is what brings me back every day. I can say that 100 percent of your contributions go to a person in need.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.