A brand-new, 40,000-square-foot warehouse in Little Chute is home to Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin’s new Fox Valley facility, a northern hub that is doing good work to end hunger in Wisconsin. Since its launch Nov. 1, the new space has been opening doors for more volunteer engagement, creative innovation and quality food for the community’s hungry than ever before. Feeding America’s bountiful efforts, combined with the enthusiastic reception from the community, are the first steps on the road toward a hunger-free Northeastern Wisconsin.
What is Feeding America?
Executive Vice President Patti Habeck explains, “Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin is a regional food bank, and we cover 65 percent of the state.” That’s a network of 36 counties and more than 550 hunger relief partners. Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin’s main site is a 90,000-square-foot warehouse located in Milwaukee, but the Fox Valley warehouse serves 26 counties and more than 200 partners from Fond du Lac north.
The rest of the state is covered by four other food banks. “All of us belong to Feeding America National,” continues Habeck. “It’s the third largest domestic hunger relief organization in the country — actually in the world.”
Feeding America has a wide scope and a long reach. “We collect food on a very large scale and distribute it to food pantries, meal programs, emergency shelters, nonprofits, anybody that’s serving food to low-income families,” says Habeck, who estimates about 11 million pounds of food is distributed in this area each year.
The majority of the food distributed by Feeding America is produce and protein, foods essential to good nutrition and healthy lifestyles. The organization has created programs with the corporate offices of many major food companies to access these resources. “We go out and proactively find the sources of protein, produce and the healthy food that’s really going to help people not only live, but thrive and stay healthy,” says Habeck
The Fox Valley facility does not typically provide direct service, meaning it isn’t the place that serves food directly to the people. “That doesn’t mean that we can’t, it just means that we don’t right now because we have enough network in this area of other pantries. We work through them rather than try to duplicate an effort,” explains Habeck. A full list of partner programs that do provide direct service can be found at feedingamericawi.org/content/list-partner-programs.
Volumes of volunteers
Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin also is expanding its range to include more volunteers. The new Fox Valley location opened Oct. 30, replacing a much smaller facility in Omro, which at approximately 12,000 square feet did not have the capacity for volunteers.
“We were able to serve the community out of that (facility), but we couldn’t accommodate volunteers. When we built this facility, we intentionally did it so that we could,” says Habeck, noting that the new location can handle 125 volunteers a day.
Feeding America volunteers help with operations of all kinds, from sorting food, pulling and packaging orders from food pantries, working in offices, writing, cleaning and so on.
“Volunteers are so critical because Feeding America has a very lean budget. For every dollar that is budgeted, we would rather that go toward feeding people than toward administration,” says Senior Director of Community Engagement and Partnerships Rayna Andrews. The organization receives no government funding, and yet for every dollar, 97 cents goes toward food and 3 cents goes toward administration. The amount of food that must be sorted and redistributed cannot be handled without a large volunteer contribution.
Mike Otto, a retired Fox Valley resident who has spent at least nine hours a week since early December at Feeding America, is one such volunteer. He sorts food, tags and wraps pallets before turning them over to the forklifts, works in meat packaging rooms and helps load trucks for pantries picking up food.
“It’s a good reason to get up in the morning, gives you a good feeling,” says Otto of his volunteer work with Feeding America. “The name in itself tells you how much good they do. It helps a lot of people.”
The Northeast Wisconsin location’s volunteer goal for 2016 is to log more than 40,000 hours, a huge leap from the low volunteer participation at the Omro warehouse. So far, they’re on track.
“We’re able to engage larger organizations, public and private,” explains Andrews. “It’s a way to serve the community, but a lot of corporations and groups are seeing it as a team-building opportunity as well.”
“It’s things like that that really make us happy,” says Habeck, “being able to help the community and to have the community members come in here and help us, too.”
Strategies for solving hunger
Along with a new facility and volunteer growth, Feeding America is heading in a new and ambitious direction: from feeding the hungry to solving hunger.
“We have new leadership, and we have a new mission statement and a new strategic plan,” explains Habeck. “In the past, it was all about food in and food out. We just knew we had to feed people. That has all changed now with the direction that charitable food resources are moving in.”
The new warehouse makes it possible to move from a simply transactional objective to a more holistic approach to ending hunger. Feeding America’s new Strategic Plan emphasizes “four pillars of household stability; Food, Health, Housing and Employment,” and outlines four objectives that Feeding America centers its work on: Serve, Solve, Lead and Advance. Through various collaborative projects and innovative developments, the organization has already started to improve the quality of living for those in need.
“It’s not going to solve hunger to just put more food out into the community. That only kind of puts a little Band-Aid on the problem,” says Habeck. “It really is about solving hunger, and that is very possible.”
Collaboration is key
Collaboration with a variety of organizations is a big part of what makes Feeding America’s new strategy especially powerful. So far, collaboration is happening in several ways: from being part of a Community Foundation Poverty Initiative to a cooperative mental health program.
Another work-in-progress is a partnership with Women in Trucking, a national organization based out of the Fox Valley. Feeding America hopes to put a workforce development program into place to help women learn warehousing and trucking skills, addressing food insecurity and poverty as well as workplace inequality.
“What we really want to do is get everyone who has an interest in being a part of solving hunger to come around the table. We can’t do it alone, they can’t do it alone, but together we have all the resources,” says Habeck. “There’s plenty of food and money in this area, and if we would be able to get everyone around the table and addressing the same problem, we would really be able to solve hunger.”
Realizing the vision
Feeding America’s vision of a hunger-free Wisconsin cannot be achieved on its own. It takes small contributions to form an effective whole, and those contributions can start right at home in the Fox Valley.
“People ask us all the time what would help us the most,” says Habeck, ready with an answer. “We’re always looking for three things: food, funds and/or friends. Any of those things are great. A volunteer is as important to us as a financial donor. A financial donor is as important as a food donor.”
“Whenever our volunteers come in, we treat that as an educational opportunity,” says Andrews. “The more people know, the more they’re inspired to take action.”
To find out more about Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin and what you can do to help, visit feedingamericawi.org/help or call 685-6626.