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Lia and Sofia* had only a few things in common when they first met.

They were both mothers of young children and had come from the same country. They were also doubled up together in the apartment of someone they did not know very well.

With support from their case manager, they decided to become roommates when they enrolled in WayForward’s Connections program. The move allowed the two families to leave their overcrowded living situation.

In June 2022, WayForward launched the Connections Program to focus on people who are living doubled up without housing of their own. Since then, 16 families have graduated from the program and no longer need financial assistance from WayForward. Now, with help from a new pilot program grant from the Dane County Department of Human Services, Connections is expanding to help more double-up households find stability.

Over the last year, Lia and Sofia worked with the Connections case manager on budgeting, tools for being reliable tenants and understanding lease agreements. The case manager works with program participants in obtaining stable housing, and helps them navigate issues like a lack of credit and rental history. Households stay in the program for 12 months, with financial assistance decreasing over the course of the year as participants become self-sufficient in their new housing.

Both women have found work and more recently, they parted ways as roommates to move into housing of their own. They remain friends and recently shared updates with their case manager.

“We will always be grateful for your support,” Lia wrote. “We are all very stable and grateful to you for all the hard work.”

“I wanted to let you know that I have already moved with my son to our new apartment and everything is going well, thank God,” Sofia wrote. “We have work, health and stability. We are very grateful for all the support you have given us since the first day we met you.”

*names and identifying details changed

WayForward joined five other large Dane County food pantries last week to share the story of the rising need in the community. Household visits are up 112% over the last two years and pantry leaders shared concerns about how to continue to keep up with demand. “This serves as an emergency resource for individuals and families who are just not making enough money to cover their basic needs. Many of those seeking assistance are working full-time jobs but still struggle to make ends meet,” WayForward Executive Director Ellen Carlson told WKOW TV.  The increase in need also received coverage in  The Capital Times and on WMTV-15 News. “People in this community are generous, so that’s why we’re sharing this story,” WayForward Communications Manager Jenny Price told WMTV.

Middleton Times Tribune
Demand at Dane County pantries

WKOW 27
Dane Co. food pantries struggle with 112% increase in demand

The Capital Times
Dane County food pantries say demand surged to record highs

WMTV-15
Dane Co. food pantries seek community support as demand skyrockets

Demand at Dane Co. food pantries jumps to 112% over last two years

 

 

 

 

 

Without food pantries, thousands of people in our community wouldn’t have access to enough food to meet their basic needs. 

The demand across six of Dane County’s largest food pantries has reached record highs, more than doubling over the last two years, while charitable giving has plummeted nationwide during that same time period. The 112% increase represents the average increase in the number of household visits across the six pantries between December 2021 and December 2023. 

Up to this point, community support has been a critical part of how pantries have met the need, local pantry leaders said. 

“We have never turned anyone away, but we have had to put some limits on the amount of food people can take,” said Ellen Carlson, executive director for WayForward Resources in Middleton. “We worry about how we and other local food pantries can continue to ensure that everyone in our community has access to nutritious food.”

The pressure on pantries to meet the need escalated in Spring 2023 as pandemic-era supports phased out, including the expanded child tax credit, universal free school lunches, and increased federal food and rental assistance. 

“In the past four years, we’ve felt the impact of a pandemic, inflation, high housing costs and increased migration,” said Tracy Burton, Badger Prairie Needs Network Food Pantry Director. “All of these combined have resulted in over five times the number of visits to our pantry from pre-pandemic levels.”

Rhonda Adams, executive director of The River Food Pantry, said the number of households in need of the pantry’s services began growing steadily over the past few years and then surged when most pandemic relief programs phased out last spring, resulting in over 276,000 visits by households in need of groceries and meals in 2023 alone. “Food insecurity is a communal issue, even if we may not always recognize when it is affecting our friends and neighbors, and support from the broader community will continue to be essential to successfully addressing it,” Adams said.

While inflation has slowed down, prices for basic goods and housing have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. The consumer price index, the most widely-followed measure of inflation, remains about 20% higher than it was before the pandemic. In addition, the steep increase in housing costs in Dane County means many households in our community have to focus even more of their income on rent. 

“Many of our customers are people who are employed full-time and finding it necessary to choose between paying bills and buying food,” said Francesca Frisque, Goodman Community Center food pantry assistant director, who said growth there has been consistent and “sometimes staggering.”

“We’re thankful for so many generous partners throughout the community, and we have an incredible base of donors who give regularly. Even still, we’re not seeing as many donations come in, and we’re having a hard time keeping our shelves stocked,” Frisque said. “Without help from the community, we wouldn’t be able to meet the need of our Madison neighbors.”

Food pantries help families stretch their budgets so they don’t have to go without basic necessities and can continue to cover costs such as filling their gas tank to get to work and paying for prescriptions.

“We continue to respond to escalating pantry need with a variety of food options so people and families don’t have to choose between paying rent and buying groceries,” said Chris Kane, senior director of client services at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul — Madison. 

Here are some of their stories:

“We won’t turn anyone away, and we’re spending more money each month to make sure our shelves are stocked,” said Catie Badsing, manager of food security programs at the Sun Prairie Food Pantry at Sunshine Place. As the gap between wages and cost of living continues to widen, Badsing said pantries will keep seeing more new families who need their services. More than 8% of employed adults in Wisconsin live in food insecure households, according to a recent Census Pulse Household Survey

“Our shifts outside of regular working hours are our busiest, which means most of our customers are working, sometimes multiple jobs,” Badsing said.

There is a misconception that food pantries operate mainly with state or federal support, but only a small amount of food comes in through the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program. Instead pantries must stock their shelves by relying on a complex web of systems and collaborations.That includes strategic partnerships like those with Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, food rescues from local grocery and convenience stores, as well as monetary and food donations from businesses, foundations, churches, and individuals.

“Unfortunately, many grants have stayed at the same levels, pandemic era funding is gone, our guests’ SNAP benefits have been reduced, and our food banks have been struggling to keep up with this growth,” said Burton from Badger Prairie Needs Network. “We’ve been grateful to be in a community that has always risen to the need — but with this enormous growth, we will need to find new sources of food and/or money or will have to restrict access to the pantry.”

While generous food drives at the end of 2023 had a major impact for people in our community, hunger doesn’t end with the holiday season. Donations of money, food and your volunteer time can all make an immediate difference in the lives of so many of our neighbors who need our support now more than ever.

We’ve noticed a hopeful trend we wanted to share: groups of kids and teens collecting food to help make sure more people have enough nutritious food to eat. 

Food drives have real results. They help us distribute the equivalent of more than 100,000 meals a month to the thousands of people who access our pantry. That’s a lot of family dinners! The kids who came together to do these drives showed us what we can do together to create a community where everyone has the stability to thrive. The groups of kids, ranging from preschool to high school, who organized food drives recently include:

Want to get your school, youth group or team involved and organize your own drive? Please contact Jill Bradshaw at jill@wayforwardresources.org.

Starting this month, you can find a regular column in the Middleton-Cross Plains Times Tribune from WayForward Resources written by our communications manager, Jenny Price. Look for it mid-month as you’re catching up on other local news to learn more about our work and what is happening in our community.

Read below for this month’s column:

Food and housing insecurity continues post holiday season
By Jenny Price, WayForward Resources

We all heard a lot about hunger and food insecurity during the holiday season. At WayForward Resources (formerly Middleton Outreach Ministry), we saw our community come together to make a difference.

From preschoolers at Primrose School of Middleton to the Sikh Society of Madison to members of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, a wide range of groups organized drives and collected thousands of pounds of food that went right to our pantry shelves. We also had many businesses and individuals sign up to help provide holiday gift cards to 1,700 people in our community to make the season a little brighter.

“We’ve all had times in our life where we needed help without judgment or just a little boost to get us through,” said Laura Duffield, an employee at NET, who organized its purchase of 200 gift cards. “We care about our community and we really believe that helping others strengthens those bonds that hold us all together.”

But despite these efforts, food insecurity and housing instability in our community didn’t end when the New Year began. 

Demand at our pantry has increased 100 percent over the last year. When we share this information, people often ask us why so many people need to use food pantries. Everyone who comes to the WayForward Resources food pantry has a story that is uniquely their own — but what they all share is how access to nutritious food will increase stability in their lives. 

We saw a young couple forced to use their savings to maintain health insurance coverage after the husband was laid off from a marketing firm where he had a promising career path. His wife was in treatment for cancer and had significant medical bills. Visiting the pantry for food allowed them to stay in their apartment while he looked for another job.

Food from the pantry was also a lifeline for a mother of two since she arrived here from Venezuela — a country in crisis — to stay with her sister. The woman’s husband was working in Arizona and making plans to join them as soon as he can find work here. In the meantime, WayForward’s food pantry is how she makes sure that her kids have enough nutritious food to eat.

WayForward also made the difference for another woman struggling to pay rent after unexpectedly needing to care for her infant grandson. She regularly visits the food pantry to help release the financial pressure that caring for a growing baby puts on her monthly budget, so she can provide a safe and stable home for her grandchild.

Along with food insecurity, our community is also in a housing crisis. Eviction filings are on the rise in Dane County since the expiration of pandemic era assistance that helped many households stretch their budgets to cover the cost of food and housing. Across the country, homelessness has risen to its highest reported level on record, with the largest increase among families with children. Federal officials say there is an urgent need to support proven solutions that prevent homelessness.

These numbers represent very real stress and threats to stability in the lives of families in our community. For them, gathering for dinner and being able to do homework at the kitchen table is at risk.

WayForward’s housing stability programs focus on eviction prevention, providing financial assistance for rent or other expenses to ensure that people can stay in their homes and children can remain in their schools. We set a record for the amount of housing assistance we provided in November as rent has risen faster here than anywhere else in the country and the availability of housing lags far behind the demand in Dane County. We see no sign of the need for assistance slowing down.

Thanks to support from our community, we can continue to prevent families from facing the trauma of eviction and homelessness —  98% of participants in our housing stability program maintained housing and avoided eviction for a year or longer. We provide access to both housing stability assistance and case management, as well as nutritious food from our pantry at no cost to ensure that people can continue to meet their most basic needs.

As we move into 2024, I’ll continue sharing stories every month here in the Times Tribune. You’ll hear about the impact our programs have on the lives of participants and about people who connect with and support our mission to bring our community together to create food and housing security through action and advocacy. 

Thanks for reading, and for being part of our vision for a community where everyone has the stability to thrive.

 

Isthmus recently reported that Madison food pantries are seeing a steep increase in visitors this year as rent increases, inflation, and the expiration of federal COVID assistance programs push more people in our community to the brink of financial instability.

The article includes an interview with Leslie Albrecht Huber, strategic engagement director for WayForward. “For us it’s record demand, more than any time in our 40-year history,” Huber told Isthmus. “The past year we have seen a very significant increase in need for both food and housing assistance.”

Huber also shared the steep increase in monthly visits to WayForward’s pantry, which have tripled since January 2022. She noted several factors contributing to the rise including the expiration of COVID-era assistance programs and the rent increases occurring in the Madison area.

Some seeking assistance report $100 to $200 increases as their lease renews, she said. “That hundred or two hundred is a game changer,” she told the newspaper. “When people are putting more and more income into staying in their home, there’s very little left for food.”

Read more in the online version of the article that appears in this month’s issue of Isthmus.

A year-end message from WayForward Executive Director Ellen Carlson

At WayForward, we believe that when everyone has access to key building blocks for stability, we can transform our community into the kind of place we want it to be. 

This year has presented many challenges to this vision of our community. When I sat down to write this letter last year, our food pantry was providing the equivalent of 54,000 meals per month. Now we’re distributing 115,000 per month. We see the same pressure on our housing stability programs, setting a record for the amount of financial assistance we provided in November.

When I look ahead I see no sign of the demand plateauing.

Numbers like these can be overwhelming. But I’m sharing them with you because they tell us a lot about what is happening in our community. And these numbers represent the experiences of people in our community: people who are standing in line outside in the cold two hours before our food pantry opens and people who are sitting in our lobby waiting to meet with case managers to discuss housing assistance. 

Experts report the rise in demand is due to the end of pandemic-era support, general inflation and the steep increase in housing costs in our community, which causes people to focus even more of their income on paying rent. We have never turned anyone away from getting food, but we have had to put some limits on the amount of food people can take. We worry about how we and other local food pantries can continue to ensure that everyone in our community has access to nutritious food.

It is hard to hear these things. But this challenging moment also includes milestones to celebrate. 

In the week prior to Thanksgiving, about 3,000 people received food from our pantry, including additional ingredients needed to make holiday meals for their families. We are on track to distribute the equivalent of more than one million pounds of food this year.

More than 600 households received financial assistance last year. As the Madison area continues to experience some of the highest rent increases in the country, this support allowed families to avoid eviction and stay in their homes, where they can eat dinner together and have a place for kids to do homework at night. In addition, the first participants have graduated from our Connections program, which means over the last year they have transitioned from doubled-up housing into homes of their own and no longer need financial assistance.

Your support is how we have continued to meet the need up to this point and stay focused on our mission. You ensure that families have access to nutritious food, including the nearly 3,000 people who received food for holiday meals. Your support also meant more than 600 students started the school year with backpacks loaded with the supplies they needed and 1,700 people received gift cards to help stretch their dollars a little farther this holiday season.

Every day, I am grateful for our volunteers, who have grown in numbers and put in more hours this year than last year. They adapt to our changing needs and adjust their to-do lists to tackle what is needed. We see so much patience and generosity as they work to help ensure people have critical access to food. I’m also thankful for the people in our community who recognize the impact of our work and serve as powerful advocates for WayForward and the people we serve. We will continue to need your strong voices in the year to come so our neighbors can go to bed at night knowing local food pantries – the last safety net for the most basic of all needs – will still be able to serve them.

There are a number of ways you can still make a tax deductible financial donation this year. Donations of your time and food can also make an immediate difference, including buying items directly from our wish list listed on our website, to help us continue to offer a variety of options to the people who visit our pantry.

By joining forces to provide our time, expertise, and resources, we can provide more people access to nutritious food and stable housing.

Donate

We are grateful to everyone who has provided generous financial support to WayForward Resources this year.

As you make your year-end giving plans, please consider talking with your tax or other financial advisors about joining our community efforts to provide food access and housing stability in one of the following ways:*

MAKE A GIFT FROM YOUR IRA

Qualified charitable distributions (QCDs) from your individual retirement account (IRA) are still tax-free. Anyone age 70 ½ or older may receive QCD treatment for certain transfers of up to $100,000 from their IRA directly to a qualified charity. Transfers qualifying as QCDS are not included in taxable
income and reduce the balance of your retirement account (on which you and your heirs will ultimately pay tax). You can direct your QCDs to one or more qualified charitable organizations of your choice.

Note: Be sure to confirm with your advisor that the transfer meets the requirements to be treated as a QCD.

OPEN A DONOR ADVISED FUND

If you want to retain flexibility in the causes you support, consider establishing a donor-advised fund. You can plan a charitable tax deduction this year and retain the flexibility to distribute gifts to charities later or over multiple years.

GIVE APPRECIATED STOCK

Gifts of appreciated securities may provide an increased tax deduction. If you have stocks or other securities that are worth more than you paid for them, and you’ve owned them for at least 12 months, consider giving those to charity. This may avoid capital gains tax and allow a charitable deduction for the securities’ full fair market value. Your deduction for donations of appreciated stock or securities to public charities is limited to 30% of your adjusted gross income each year, but you can carry over any excess deductions for up to five additional years.

Note: Since gifts of appreciated stock can take time to process, coordinate with your financial advisor as soon as possible to ensure a transfer can be completed by year end.

 

*Thank you to Madison Community Foundation for providing this information.

WayForward Resources Executive Director Ellen Carlson wrote a guest column published online by the Wisconsin State Journal that addresses the dramatic increase in need food pantries in Dane County are seeing and how the community can help.

“Visits to our food pantry, which serves all of Dane County, have more than tripled since January 2022. We are now distributing the equivalent of 125,000 meals each month,” Carlson wrote in the column that will appear in the print edition on Wednesday, Nov. 22.

Carlson shared that the demand shows now sign of going away and that experts point to pandemic-era support, general inflation and the steep increase in housing costs that cause people to focus even more of their income on paying rent.

“We have never turned anyone away, but we have had to put some limits on the amount of food people can take,” Carlson wrote. “We worry about how we and other local food pantries can continue to ensure that everyone in our community has access to nutritious food.”

In addition Carlson addresses the misconception is that food pantries operate mainly with state or federal support. She notes that only a small amount of food comes in through the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program. WayForward stocks its shelves by relying on a complex web of systems and collaborations. That includes strategic partnerships with Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, surplus from local grocery and convenience stores, as well as monetary and food donations from businesses, foundations, churches and individuals.

“Food pantries need your support now more than ever. Donations of money, food and your time can all make an immediate difference,” she wrote, adding that she wants people in our community to know food pantries will be there to prove a safety net.

“We must come together to make sure food pantries can continue to keep our neighbors from experiencing hunger,” she wrote.

The Mulcahy Family is providing a #GivingTuesday challenge gift this year in hopes of motivating future generations to give back.

“WayForward as Middleton Outreach Ministry (MOM) provided a way for my family to participate in our community’s care for those who found themselves in need of support,” says Patricia Mulcahy. “When our children were young, I served on the MOM Board of Directors representing my parish and provided transportation for an elderly woman through the Project for Older People. Over the years the organization’s outreach has evolved and broadened and the community has continued to step up. Our children now have children of their own and this gift is to encourage them to support others through their communities.”