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WayForward is celebrating Global Volunteer Month in April and the volunteers who give their time and talents to build food security and housing stability in our community. Last year, more than 1,100 WayForward volunteers gave nearly 25,000 hours to support our programs.

Meet Mark Walther, who volunteers three mornings a week in WayForward’s food pantry warehouse.

Volunteer role: Mark started volunteering at WayForward a little more than a year ago after retiring. He tried out a range of roles before deciding he most enjoyed working in the food pantry warehouse, where he unloads and sorts deliveries three mornings a week. At the end of last year, he got a notification about how many volunteer hours he had accumulated and picked up even more shifts to reach 500 hours of volunteering in 2023. 

How did you get started? My wife is younger than I am, and she’s still working. So she was working from home and I had to be very quiet. So I needed to find something to do. … so I tried everything. I stocked, I cleaned, I went out on the truck for rescues, and I decided that the warehouse was where I belong.

What keeps you coming back? I enjoy the physical work. I enjoy the fact it’s a reason to get up in the morning and go somewhere. Getting up in the morning and having breakfast and reading the paper at home – I would still be in bed right now. So this gets me up and going and gets on with the day, so it’s good for me.  It’s also great to be social with other people. I’ve kind of coalesced a group on Wednesday and Friday – I call them my crew.

What has surprised you about volunteering at WayForward? I’m amazed at how much food comes in and goes out here. A contribution that comes in the front door today will be gone today. And you can’t ignore the need. They’re lined up here at 7:30 in the morning when I arrive and it doesn’t open until 10. 

What would you say to encourage someone else to volunteer at WayForward? You’re doing a good deed. You’re doing something for other people, so that’s always important. But I think it’s good for you to get out and be social and to do some work, and everyone has something they can contribute. People come here from so many different backgrounds, it’s just interesting to find out what people do. I’m always asking people, ‘What did you do before you were here?’ And then I’m amazed. 

WayForward is celebrating Global Volunteer Month in April and the volunteers who give their time and talents to build food security and housing stability in our community.  Last year, more than 1,100 WayForward volunteers gave nearly 25,000 hours to support our programs.

Meet Jamie Russell, one of our newer volunteers in WayForward’s food pantry.

Volunteer role: Jamie started volunteering six weeks ago in the food pantry warehouse, where he helps unload, sort and stock food for distribution to the community.

How did you get started? We lived in Middleton for years. We were financial supporters, but working full time. I recently retired, so I thought it was time for me to start doing something. And there was an email that came – we’re on the email list for WayForward – and it said “We’re looking for volunteers.” I thought, “Might as well give it a shot.”

What has surprised you about volunteering at WayForward? The surprise is how much effort that goes into this. From the outside, it doesn’t look like it’s as much effort as it actually is. It takes a lot of sweat.

What would you say to encourage someone else to volunteer at WayForward? My wife just retired this week, so I’m telling her this is a great opportunity. In fact, I saw a couple of people I know she knows here. I would tell anybody give it a shot … it’s a rewarding thing to do and it gets you out of the house and you’re doing something.

 

Some of the people who look to our food pantry to help stretch their budgets get to know the staff and volunteers over time.

One of our guests — who has been visiting weekly — shared that he recently had cancer surgery.

He spoke about his battle to regain his health with our food access managers and how important the pantry was to him through it all.

“It helps to feel like you have people standing behind you, and you all did that for me,” he said.

We’re distributing the equivalent of more than 120,000 meals per month an our food pantry logged 10,647 visits last month, more than triple from two years ago.

Community support has been a critical part of how WayFoward and other food pantries in Dane County meet the need.

You can make a difference and help us continue to meet the need by planning a food drive, shopping directly from our Amazon Wish List or donating today.

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.

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

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.

Kathleen and Roger* were overwhelmed when they came to WayForward for assistance.

Both in their 80s, the couple faced thousands of dollars in medical bills from Roger’s cancer treatment denied by their insurance plan.

Their WayForward case manager referred them to a patient advocate to assist with navigating their health insurance appeals, offering Kathleen some much-needed hope. She also connected them to the Aging and Disability Resource Center to learn more about potential eligibility for public benefits.

Kathleen was relieved to get some help and to learn from her WayForward case manager that they could use the food pantry to make ends meet and access nutritious food when Roger needs it most.

“I went last week and it was wonderful,” she told her case manager. “We got four apples and my husband ate one every day.”

WayForward’s food pantry is open to all Dane County residents who need it and the number of visits has risen 237% since January 2022.

*names and identifying details changed