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Holidays at the Hunger Task Force

Filling a need, but more needs to be done

Nov. 16, 2011
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“We're getting ready for the holidays so it's kind of crazy around here,” said Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Hunger Task Force, the nonprofit food bank that supplies a network of food pantries, shelters, soup kitchens and individuals.

“All holidays that we celebrate involve food,” Tussler said. “Think about it. No matter who you are or what your religion is, there's food somewhere in your celebration.”

Tussler was standing in a huge warehouse on Hawley Avenue, the site of the organization's headquarters and food distribution center.

On a typical day, staff and volunteers sort through donated items and organize huge pallets of food for members of its network. The organization has already distributed 10 million pounds of food in 2011, exceeding last year's total, to about 40,000 people per month.

But at the holidays, the Hunger Task Force goes above and beyond its regular mission by assembling traditional holiday baskets for Thanksgiving.

Huge cardboard boxes lined one wall of the warehouse, about half filled with Thanksgiving essentials like stuffing, green beans, fried onions, marshmallows and canned yams. Fresh food—onions, potatoes, pies, kringle and turkeys—will be added in the days before Thanksgiving and then distributed to 800 families in the area.

The attempt to build 800 boxes of perishable and nonperishable foods could be a logistical nightmare, but the effort is well organized and resourceful. Long before Thanksgiving, the Hunger Task Force forms a committee for its holiday meals, and assigns each member the task of securing one menu item—lots of that menu item.

“We get super creative at the holidays,” Tussler said. “We're not going to ask our usual donors for food.”

This year, Tussler was responsible for cheese and sausage. She got a commitment from a friend at the Plymouth-based Sargento Foods for cheese. Sausage was more difficult—much more difficult. Tussler reached out to her contacts but couldn't get a commitment. Eventually, she got a call from Peter's Pantry in Manitowoc, who had heard from his contacts at Piggly Wiggly that Hunger Task Force could use a huge amount of summer sausage for Thanksgiving. Tussler was in luck—the pantry could secure a huge amount of Old World Wisconsin summer sausage.

“He's giving us a full semi load of it,” Tussler said, triumphant.

Other local donors are pitching in. Rexnord is matching each donated turkey (see sidebar for details); Outpost Natural Foods Co-op is providing apples; El Rey is donating onions; a farmer in Plover is contributing potatoes. And the Wisconsin Bakers Association—best known for making cream puffs for the Wisconsin State Fair—is providing pies.

“It's a week's worth of food, not just a day's worth of holiday fun,” Tussler said. “It's turkey, turkey a la king, with noodles, turkey soup, sandwiches.”

Local pantry coordinators will decide which families they know who are really in need this year and will otherwise not have food on the table this Thanksgiving.

“We have committed to our network that we will fill 800 of these boxes,” Tussler said. “That's compared to the 40,000 or more people that are going to be in need of emergency food in the month of November. But we do what we can to make it special.”

Jim Luther, director of St. Hyacinth's Food Pantry on the near South Side, said he'll receive 25 Thanksgiving bins from Hunger Task Force. The pantry serves about 150 people a day, up from 40 or 50 a day just a few years ago. While the Thanksgiving bins will only be sent to a small fraction of the pantry's consumers, they do make a difference.

“They're very elated,” Luther said. “They're very thrilled that they can get his food.”

Food Shortages in 2012

Although the food bank is feeling flush right now, Tussler knows that 2012 is going to be a tough year for families on the edge.

Not only is the sluggish economy hurting workers and the unemployed, but the cost of food is going up, meaning that government commodities—food staples that Hunger Task Force distributes to its network—as well as private donations won't go as far as they have previously. Some pantry items like peanut butter and breakfast cereal are hard to find now.

“We're anticipating shortages of food in 2012,” Tussler said. “We've been bracing with our network for a while. We're teaching them how to sort through who is going to get the food and who shouldn't and if it's an emergency or if it's supplemental.”

The price of some essentials—like baby formula—are through the roof. A can of formula can cost between $15 and $45, an unacceptable amount for a low-income family.

Seniors, too, are being hit hard. So in addition to supplying items to food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters, Hunger Task Force also packs and delivers 10,000 stock boxes monthly to low-income seniors and children who fall through the cracks of other programs.

“We think about poverty only as income,” Tussler said. “We don't think about expenses. And the older you get the more you're going to spend on your health. It's not what you think of as your golden years.”

Just as Hunger Task Force has gotten creative about securing holiday food items for the area's hungry families, it's creatively meeting the challenges of hunger throughout the year. The organization leases and operates a 151-acre farm from the county, which supplies fresh produce to the network, a rarity. Hunger Task Force's farm also provides job training for those seeking warehouse and inventory management skills.

“Of our 12 graduates, nine of them are fully employed,” Tussler said. “It's a new thing for us but we're excited about it.”

It runs a fish hatchery so that county lagoons are stocked with 40,000 native Wisconsin fish. It then coordinates clinics with local fishermen's clubs to teach the skill of fishing.

How You Can Help

It isn't too late to help Hunger Task Force get ready for the holidays. Here's what you can do:

  • Donate a holiday turkey. You can drop off a frozen turkey before Sunday, Nov. 20 (otherwise it'll become a Christmas turkey). Cash donations work, too. You can donate $15 online at www.hungertaskforce.org or write a check for that amount to donate one turkey. Greenfield-based Rexnord is matching each donated turkey with one contributed by the company.

“Our ongoing work with the Hunger Task Force makes sense at a time of year when hunger issues are top of mind for so many,” said Linda Groth, of Rexnord. “Speaking on behalf of the Rexnord Foundation and company volunteers, we couldn't be happier to be partnering on the Turkey Ticker initiative, knowing it's helping local families enjoy turkey dinners and all the trimmings.”

  • Donate food. You can deliver fresh or nonperishable food to HTF's headquarters on Hawley Road. You can also drop off food at your neighborhood food pantry, too. While holiday treats are appreciated, Tussler asks donors to remember that families need healthy food, too, such as vegetables, 100% juice, canned fruit in juice, oatmeal, pasta and rice. “If you're upset about childhood obesity, don't donate junk food,” Tussler said. Breakfast cereal, peanut butter and baby formula are in short supply and very much in demand.
  • Volunteer: Hunger Task Force needs extra hands to sort and pack up food during the holiday rush. Volunteers are usually needed for four-hour blocks of time. Wear casual work clothes and sturdy shoes. “You will definitely know you have worked,” Tussler said. Volunteers are also needed throughout the year at headquarters, the farm and pantry and meal sites. Go to www.hungertaskforce.org/volunteer or call Marie at 414-238-6473 for more details.
  • Donate money: Because the food bank can purchase large amounts of food at low cost, it can stretch your dollars. You can make a tax-deductible donation at www.hungertaskforce.org or by sending a check to 201 S. Hawley Court, Milwaukee, WI 53214.


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