Feature Stories Winter 2011 Issue

Second Harvest: Feeding Our Neighbors

By Maggie Messitt | Illustration By Bambi Edlund 0

The first frost had come and gone. Madison’s neighborhood farmers markets had started their transition indoors. And backyard, sidewalk and community gardeners were clearing their patches of soil, preparing for the winter. But outside the beltline, down Fish Hatchery Road and into the town of Oregon, two acres of land—by the grace of unpredictable weather patterns—had been spared. Hershberger Garden, one of three Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens, still had a few days of harvest remaining. And like on most mornings, volunteers were bent over rows of eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and cabbage.

In 1990, an Oscar Mayer retiree by the name of Ken Witte began collecting surplus from area food stores and bakeries for delivery to local food pantries. He soon had farmers market vendors donating their surplus at the end of each market day. While Ken was generating, on good weeks, one ton of food, his donations were minute compared to the need throughout Dane County.

In the winter of 1999, Ken joined together with Emmett Schulte, newly retired from the Department of Soil Science at UW Madison, to establish the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens. Private land was secured, volunteers were recruited, produce was grown, and before they knew it, crops were delivered to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Southern Wisconsin and the Community Action Coalition (CAC). These organizations, in turn, delivered to food pantries. At the time, the U.S. poverty rate was 12.7 percent, there was a 4.5 percent unemployment rate, and more than 34 million Americans were facing food insecurity.

Today, twelve years later, 48.8 million Americans live in food insecure households. While Wisconsin residents are better off economically than the nation on the whole, 750,000 Wisconsinites live in poverty today. When Ken and Emmett first started growing produce for food pantries, that number was 466,000.

With food insecurity at its highest rate in decades, food relief organizations and the power of volunteerism has become more critical than ever. While Emmett and Ken have passed their administrative torches to site-coordinators Tom Parslow and Phil Cox, a dedicated team of senior volunteers continues to sow, weed and harvest three food pantry gardens, each named after their generous land owners: Malmquist, Lacy, and Hershberger. The food pantry gardens, totaling four acres, are responsible for more than 100,000 pounds of produce provided to pantries annually.

Feeding Communities Through Vacant Lots
The earliest documented garden movement in the United States—vacant lot farming—started 120 years ago in Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Denver, eventually spreading to America’s urban centers. Most gardens were grown for consumption. Others sold their harvest as a means to support their families. Quickly, these gardens were considered a critical component to hunger relief. While the vacant lot movement plateaued and slowly disappeared, the concept has been repackaged and repurposed, creating a chain of garden movements between then and now: City Beautiful Movement (1890), School Gardens and Civic Gardening Campaigns (1900s), World War One Liberty Gardens (1917), depression-era gardens (1930s), World War Two Victory Gardens (1942), and Community Gardens (1970s), to the wide-range of inner city, prison, community, cooperative and permaculture gardens today. One thing is clear: the popularity of community gardens piques during times of greatest need.

The victory garden movement was the most successful in U.S. history. In 1943, there were 20 million victory gardens across the country. Together they produced 8 million tons of food and accounted for 41 percent of the produce consumed by Americans that year. Throughout the country, people were plowing every piece of land they could, from front and back yards to vacant lots and rooftop “plots.” Gardens grew around city halls and in public parks. Most famously, there were over 800 gardens in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

During a time of war, rationing and empty grocery store shelves, relatives, neighbors and strangers were working together to feed their communities. And for the first time politically, the right to land was being linked to a person’s basic human right to food. Five years later, this right was recognized within the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

To equal the victory garden effort—during which time there was at least one garden for every seven Americans—we would need 45.5 million gardens in 2011. The reality is we are estimated to have only 60,000 community gardens today. This, however, does not include residential gardens, the sidewalk garden movement, or rooftops where people have been inspired to plant produce in old tires, kiddie pools and raised beds.

In 2009, more than one billion people worldwide were recognized as undernourished. To many, gardens and small cooperative farms play an integral role in decreasing this number.

Food Insecurity
Only a few months into the 2011 planting season and a short distance from the food pantry gardens in Madison, Sallie, a 45-year-old single mother, and her young son were being evicted from their efficiency apartment—she was two months past due on rent. Her bank account had run dry, and her landlord needed $900. She had gone from full-time to part-time to piece-meal to work-for-accommodation or food.

Sallie was experiencing food insecurity, and her life was quickly dependent upon food pantries and shelters. The pair slept at the firstcome- first-served Salvation Army for two nights, but on day three they were turned away. That night and for many that followed, Sallie parked her 20-year-old hatchback on a quiet street. Inside, she and her son were surrounded by everything they owned: bags of clothing, a box of toys, their television set, photo albums and housewares.

“I was afraid for my son. And I knew he was hungry,” she says now. “I remember crying. I had a real sense of no one there to help us.”

* * *

Food insecurity is something many people have a difficult time understanding or visualizing. What is it? “Food secure households have enough food at all times for an active healthy life. In contrast, households with low food security have uncertain access to food.”

This means empty cupboards, skipping meals and eating less because you don’t have the means to purchase what you need. According to the report Poverty and Food Insecurity in Wisconsin and Dane County (2011), one in every four people experience food hardship within Wisconsin’s most dire districts (of which, in the Edible Madison region, Vernon County is one), and nine in every 25 single mothers live below the poverty line.

Today, one in every seven people use food stamps—that’s 43 million Americans and an increase of 3 million from 2009 to 2010. According to Judi Bartfeld, a food security research and policy specialist at UW Madison’s School of Human Ecology, national data shows that while the number of families facing food insecurity has been on a steady increase, it has actually started to plateau, suggesting that the government’s investment in safety-net programs (like food stamps, low-income tax credits and extended unemployment checks) has had a stabilizing effect.

With Harvest Comes Shortage
As buckets and boxes of peppers and tomatoes and eggplant gathered on the edge of Hershberger Garden, the idea of winter was setting in. It was the tail end of the season and volunteers were tired, ready to check out and recoup over the winter months. With that comes the knowledge of a dry period for produce and a dip in donations to local food pantries. The gardeners stood at the meeting point of excess and dearth.

“It’s a shame,” sighed Tom Parslow, the site coordinator for Lacy Garden and a retired agricultural teacher and tractor collector. Lacy Garden was already tapped for the season with the exception of a few post-frost salvageables. “We’re flush with vegetables now, or up until now. And if you go to Florida, for example, they’re flush with vegetables in January and February when we don’t have it. I don’t see it here like I saw it down there, but they had piles of good food there just composting. It’s too bad the cost of hauling and transportation is prohibitive for us to capitalize. And vise versa—in the summer they don’t have anything and we have lots.”

“This all started because Ken was gleaning,” explained Tom. There are routes for gleaning anything: bread from bakeries, produce from farms, apples from orchards, and crops from the “control fields” of agriculture research. “It’s not a new concept,” he continued. “We were gleaning in the 70s. Up in Juneau County it’s potato country. We’d go up to the fields and collect loose potatoes, tons of potatoes, the ones that would slip through the harvesting machines.”

Banking in Pinto Beans, Produce and Brights
While community solutions to hunger have been around for decades and arguably thousands of years, food banks are a relatively modern (and very Wisconsin) idea. In 1965, a man by the name of Jon van Hengel was a volunteer donation collector for Saint Vincent de Paul’s community dining room in Arizona. When van Hengel learned that retail stores threw out damaged and nearly-expired food, he organized a system to “glean” this bruised yet perfectly good food from retailers. One store’s waste was another man’s dinner. When there wasn’t enough storage space for his collections, he approached his parish priest for permission to use space in the church. Not only did the priest agree, but he also offered van Hengel a station wagon with which he could make collections. Borrowing from the agricultural concept of gleaning, van Hengel— born and raised in Beaver Dam—established the first food bank in the world. Since then, food banks have become the key ingredient to the global hunger relief story.

Several times a week throughout the summer and into early fall, Phil Cox delivers Hershberger’s crop to Second Harvest Food Bank of Southern Wisconsin, the designated food bank for 16 southwestern Wisconsin counties.

When you pass through the warehouse doors, the hum of refrigeration and the noise of forklifts and dollies drowns out most conversation. Volunteers can be found processing barrels of food drive donations, dividing 2,000-pound bags of pinto beans into two-pound household portions, and labeling “brights” (bare, and often dented, tin cans)—a long-time food pantry staple. The aim: dole out food as fast as possible.

“We’re a distribution company,” says Dan Stein, CEO of Second Harvest. Surrounded by one million pounds of dry goods, his job is to make sure the floor-to-ceiling warehouse shelves and the multiple fridge and freezer units are stocked and turned around quickly. Stein represents a side of the hunger relief food chain that feels very big-business in a very grassroots campaign.

They have a staff of only 39, but they welcome the help of between 75 and 125 volunteers each day. An inventory system updates every two minutes. Nine trucks are on the road at any given time. A software system that resembles air traffic control allows for real-time truck route changes, saving 40 percent in fuel. And they coordinate a daily mobile food pantry with 30 monthly distribution locations, meeting needs in areas with fewer service providers and assuring that food near its sell-by date doesn’t get thrown away. It’s a machine. A critical machine. Like a Wal-Martsized link in a chain of mostly mom-and-pops.

Ironically, Wal-Mart is, in fact, one of Second Harvest’s greatest partnerships. With 18 locations (including their Sam’s Club franchise and two distribution centers) within Second Harvest’s territory, their contributions have a vital impact on the 350 food pantries, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters served by the bank. DelMonte, Libby’s, Walgreens, Roundy’s and many other companies contribute toward the warehouse of food relief.

Ninety percent of food inside the warehouse comes from large retailers and food processing companies. The remaining ten percent comes from organizations like the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens. These smaller organizations, powered by volunteers, have less consistency, reliability and delivery warning. As a result, their donations are handled on a case-by-case basis. Often they are immediately dispersed via a mobile pantry. Sometimes, they’re packaged in quantities for family consumption and distributed through regular orders. And in some situations, the produce is immediately offered to any pantry picking-up that day, bypassing the inventory system. These are often, throw-ins, without maintenance fee. A bonus.

In a state that prides itself on local, small business, a state that could arguably have the highest quantity of community-share agriculture and artisan food-and-drink businesses in the country, its ironic how imperative big business is in solving hunger within its borders. From the outside, most can’t see it. Many don’t want to see it. From the inside, every food pantry worker and soup kitchen organizer will tell you, “We couldn’t do this without Second Harvest.”

* * *

Robert, a 39-year-old unemployed construction worker, and his daughter sat inside their car waiting for the mobile pantry to arrive. “Winter is definitely here,” he said, pushing his warm breath into the cold air and watching it hang. It was the first day that called for a scarf and gloves, and while a warm spell would return before the harsh winter hit, it was representative of what always comes in Wisconsin.

Beside him were several canvas bags that, in an hour’s time, would be full of dry goods, produce, paper products and a few toiletries. Fifty to sixty pounds.

“This is when things start to get hard. In the summer, it’s easier to get food and I don’t have to worry about heat. I worry less. Winter is just….” Robert paused, never completing his sentence. Outside, other cars were pulling up and waiting, also early for the pantry.

Empty Shelves
Just off Packer Drive, tucked inside the northeastern neighborhoods of Madison, men and women can be found lining up on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Each is facing hardship. Most are under-employed or unemployed. Some have two or more lowpaying, hourly jobs. Some arrive with children in tow. Others arrive on their lunch hour in dress pants and heels. Inside, they meet relief in the form of dry goods, produce and snacks to bring home.

Just inside the door of The River Food Pantry, clients meet Jenny Czerkas, a pantry co-founder who is giving out numbered tickets to early arrivals designating their turn to shop. It’s a lottery system. If you arrive later, you’ll stand in line and wait your turn. “Bryce! Bill! I need your help over here!” shouts Jenny.

The line of latecomers starts to grow and the division of ticket recipients and those just walking in the door begins to blur. The 11,000-square-foot warehouse is split between waiting and shopping. Once a number is called, the recipient grabs a cart (or pulls their own, which many do) and makes their way through the first short aisle and a second longer, wider aisle of dry goods. Every few meters, volunteers assist where they can, weighing groceries, pulling stock. While some food pantries work on a food-groups-point-system, The River Food Pantry has a weight-only policy that allows them to serve more people in less time and empowers clients to choose.

“People are adults. They can choose what they want to choose. It simplifies our job and we wouldn’t be able to serve the numbers we do if we had a restrictive [food group or quantity-based] setup,” explains co-founder Andy Czerkas. A client shopping for one or two people is allowed 12 pounds of food; three to four receive 18 pounds; and five or more get 24 pounds. They serve up to 80 clients in one hour.

Down the largest aisle, carts leisurely wheel as clients shop, and Angie, a single mother and veteran pantry volunteer, helps clients pull canned goods from the shelves. Behind Angie and farther down the aisle, additional volunteers—each with a white, handwritten nametag—weigh food before clients continue on to fresh produce, breads and snack packs. Interacting with everyone who passes by, Angie smiles and, while many might miss it, she genuinely locks eyes with whomever she speaks. “I get it,” says Angie. “It’s not easy for anyone.”

What most people don’t realize is, while Angie volunteers on Tuesday, on Fridays she pushes her own cart, collecting food for her family. Angie is one of many clients who chooses to give back to the system from which they collect. Many might even say volunteer hours have become a currency.

“Some people feel ashamed walking through our doors,” says Andy. “Our system tells them they are failures, but they are not. It’s the system that has failed.”

Jenny and her husband Andy founded The River Food Pantry in 2006. Neither had been involved in food relief previously, nor did either have a clear expectation as to how many people they’d be serving. Andy, an instructor at Madison Area Technical College, splits his time. On any given week, Jenny could easily spend 70 hours focused on the pantry. They both work six days out of seven and serve approximately 600 families each week.

Recipients of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for Public Service, Andy and Jenny’s holistic approach to free food distribution has gained recognition by both clients and national organizers. Andy, who is the first to admit that he stands on the shoulders of his wife and pantry volunteers, was recently named one of five finalists for the AARP Hunger Hero Award.

“We couldn’t do this without partnerships and Second Harvest. We give away up to 25,000 pounds of food each week. There’s no way we could buy that wholesale. During lean times, which this is, we shop [wholesale] once a month.” The River Food Pantry spends $100,000 a year on food, occasional wholesale purchases, plus an average Second Harvest maintenance fee of 18 cents per pound.

Human Capital and Sweat Hours
Throughout the journey—from soil to bucket to truck, from warehouse shelf to delivery pallet, from pantry shelf to cart to grocery bag, and eventually onto the shelves of families—every item within the food relief system passes through the hands of multiple volunteers. In the heart of the summer, the food pantry gardens accumulate up to 500 weekly sweat hours. Second Harvest is powered by 5,300 such hours each month. And on any given Tuesday, River Food Pantry volunteers clock as much as 125 compiled hours. The success of food relief rides on the backs of volunteers.

“The reason our model works so effectively is because of volunteers,” says Dan Stein whose Second Harvest employees, on a slow day, are outnumbered two to one. While Second Harvest and even most pantries have a steady stream of volunteers, the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens and other organizations on the supplier end of the chain struggle to grow their dedicated teams and maintain interest longer than one-off visits.

“How do we get volunteers? Beg, borrow, and steal!” laughed Hershberger Garden coordinator Phil Cox. “It’s easier to get a 100-dollar check than it is to get an hour of work. This is not glitzy. It’s dirty. But it’s rewarding. We do it because somebody’s got to do it.”

Please visit www.ediblemadison.com for a special online only supplement to this article by Maggie Messitt.

Editor’s Note: We at Edible Madison passionately support the efforts of the incredible entrepreneurs and volunteers who fight hunger daily in our own backyard. We acknowledge the serious nature of the problem, and we respect those who must battle it within their families—because to them, the problem is all-encompassing. We hope our readers will visit the websites of the food security organizations mentioned in this article, as well as those we could not include, and consider supporting them with a donation of money, food, or even better, your time.






Maggie Messitt has written stories and edited publications in North America and southern Africa since 2001. For the past decade--while reporting on human rights and rural issues--Maggie has also been on an edible journey, exploring the relationship between food and family, character and consumption, kitchens and hearts. She believes our food reflects our story, past and present. Maggie currently lives in Madison with her dog, Shinga--both equally love apples and kale and cheese.

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