The Riverwest Food Pantry began in the late ‘70s and has operated out of Our Lady of Divine Providence and Gaenslen Milwaukee Public School for decades. The pantry’s mission is to alleviate food insecurity, which means a lack of consistent access to adequate food.
Milwaukee’s overall population is just under 600,000 and the need for food assistance has surged from 140,207 in 2005 to 279,241 in 2012, an increase of over 100 percent.
As of January 2012, the poverty line for a family of four was $23,050 or less. Approximately 40 percent of residents in the Riverwest / Harambee neighborhoods have an income level at or below the poverty line.
The pantry is available to people who live in the 53212, 53203, 53211 and 53217 zip codes. Many people do not need assistance every week and the pantry recognizes need is often episodic and cyclical.
Some people need assistance after an illness or injury, a change to benefits, a business moving or even just trying to raise a family on minimum wage incomes or during a recession.
The service provides food to 500 to 1,000 people per month; it served 10,000 people in 2012. Clients who utilize the pantry are unemployed or underemployed, low-to-moderate income, homeless, immigrants and elderly or disabled on a fixed income.
To qualify, people must present an ID and income verification at the pantry.
"It is essential for our community to understand just how diverse pantry clientele are. The longer I work in the pantry I see how most of us could become food insecure if just a few circumstances changed," says Vincent Noth, the director of the program.
Food is available at St. Casmir, 924 E. Clarke St., every Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. It is also available at Gaenslen School, 1250 E. Burleigh Ave., on Tuesday from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.
The Riverwest Food Pantry is a "choice pantry" which means people can select from an assortment of foods, including fresh breads, fruits and vegetables, meats and other staple foods, rather than having foods pre-packed by pantry workers. There are only a few choice pantries in the city.
However, according to Noth, this is not the only thing that makes the Riverwest Food Pantry special.
"What makes us more unique is the large amount of fresh produce and bread we provide which takes a lot of volunteer hours," says Noth. "We also partner with Three Holy Women Parish which has a large volunteer-run community garden that provides us with fresh produce in the summer – a model we intend to expand to empower our clients to grow food as well."
According to Noth, Hunger Task Force has worked really hard to encourage pantries to move toward "choice" but most still pack bags instead.
Noth replaced longtime volunteer and retired teacher, Donna Fletcher. Prior to running the Riverwest Food Pantry, Noth was a community and organizational development Peace Corps volunteer with his wife Jessica in Moldova, Eastern Europe.
Prior to that Noth worked in the area of nonprofit youth development and youth ministry for about 10 years.
The Riverwest Food Pantry consists of 150 volunteers who grow, rescue, sort and prepare food for the two pantries. More than 95 percent of the food is donated.
Donations are collected and prepared primarily from four Catholic parishes: Three Holy Women Parish, Saints Peter and Paul Parish, Our Lady of Divine Providence Parish and Old Saint Mary Parish. Food donations are also received from Christ Redeemer Anglican Church, Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Saint John’s on the Lake Retirement Community, as well as a variety of grocery stores, bakeries and community organizations.
"Saving $100 a month on food can go a long way when you're trying to manage a tight budget," says Noth.
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