Charitable Organizations Can’t Keep Up With Food Insecurity in Milwaukee

The high demand overwhelming local food banks exposes the limits of food giveaways and the need for foundational solutions.

Task Force’s Aug. 11 Senior Stockbox carried the promise of a do-over. The previous day’s giveaway ended with a lack of supplies, one of only a handful of times the nonprofit’s stock was nearly depleted. The good feelings of Aug. 11, though, ended when the cops rolled up.

In normal time, this particular Senior Stockbox is a monthly event held in the lobby of the West Allis Senior Center. Elderly residents play cards as they wait for their banker boxes stuffed with groceries. Lunch is provided But these are not normal times. All leisure was abandoned when the event shifted down the street to an ancillary parking lot behind the West National Avenue Pick ‘N Save.

The first cars lined up shortly after noon, as staff off-loaded pallets from delivery trucks about an hour prior to distribution. There was enough food to feed 240 people, 40 more than expected turnout. Then a stack of milk jugs collapsed, spilling a lake of milk across the blacktop, its scent turning acrid in the summer sun.

Typically, Hunger Task Force draws from a large volunteer force – numbering around 15,000 annually – to assist with its sweeping anti-hunger efforts across Southeastern Wisconsin, but COVID-19 has forced the organization to suspend it’s volunteer program. Ten total workers, all paid employees, manage the Stockbox event, including executive director Sherrie Tussler. All hands are busy, with no one free to corral the growing line of traffic.

An hour later, cars snake down a lane of National and double back into another driveway. Standstill traffic stretches past the front doors of the Pick ‘N Save, trapping regular shoppers in the parking lot. Muttered impatience becomes open hostility. The store manager, a binder-clenching woman named Kathy, orders two teenage employees to the property’s edge to direct traffic, where they are subjected to a barrage of abusive language by idling seniors. Meanwhile, she calls the police. 

“I understand times are hard, but this is a fight waiting to happen,” she says. 

The police are a long time coming, and when they arrive the heaviest congestion has abated. A grim parade proceeds calmly to the mellow sounds of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” blasting from Tussler’s red Silverado parked nearby. The responding officer huddles with Kathy, the Pick ‘N Save manager, and another Hunger Task Force staffer. He listens for about 45 seconds before throwing up his hands, saying there’s not enough on-duty police to direct traffic. They can call back when the violence. 

The Hunger Task Force farm in Franklin in May (Photo courtesy of Hunger Task Force)

The back-to-back chaotic events of early August demonstrate the surging intensity overtaking food banks as COVID-19 continues its assault on normalcy. 

Food insecurity is hardly a new problem. Last fall the Urban Institute launched a data dashboard showing more than 150,000 Milwaukee County residents, or 16.5%, are food insecure – a somewhat abstract term describing people whose empty cupboards are more than a momentary irritation. Some of these people only eat nutritionally poor food because they lack access to better options. In the worst cases, some are physically hungry and malnourished. 

The project mapped rates in every American country, and then grouped counties by the similarity of risk factors. Milwaukee County shares much more in common with Los Angeles and Miami-Dade counties when it comes to food insecurity than it does with neighboring Waukesha. Though the once ambitious project is now badly limited by pre-pandemic predictions, it remains a vital accounting of systemic problems that are likely to persist after the pandemic recedes. 

Follow-up research by Feeding America, conducted specifically to access COVID-19’s impact, bumps Milwaukee County’s food insecurity rate up to 17.5% or roughly 1 in 6 residents, as of June. This despite enhanced unemployment payments, a cash stimulus and an eviction moratorium, most of which were short-term fixes. Statewide figures are trending in the same direction. The Household Pulse Survey launched by the U.S. Census Bureau in response to the pandemic found the rate of respondents reporting food insecurity grew from 7.7% to 9.3% from late spring to midsummer. 

Hunger Task Force executive director Sherrie Tussler (Photo courtesy of Hunger Task Force)

The rising tide of hunger comes even as relief floodgates. have burst open. 

“The world turned upside down [the week of] March 13. Money just poured in,” Tussler says. “Channel 12 ran what they thought would be a quick telethon for us, and then decided they’d keep hammering on it all the way through Aril. They raised $600,000.” 

The outpouring of support is more than matched by the government for now. Emergency provisions have suspended work requirements and boosted benefits for some recipients of the main food assistance programs. And Tussler can rattle off the list of acronymic programs she’s tapped since March. “There’s TEFAP, CSFP, CFAB, TMP, FFCRA and CARES. … It took a pandemic for the federal government to supply the commodity programs adequately.” 

There is now much more food to go around. Before COVID-19, Senior Stockbox clients received three or four plastic shopping bags worth of non-perishables in their box. They still get that – the Aug. 11 menu included cereals, dried pasta, canned vegetables and apple juice – but it’s a fraction of the total haul. Corn and cucumbers come fresh from the Hunger Task Force farm in Franklin, two of 75 types of vegetables grown on the 208-acre former prison work farm. Canned and frozen peaches are supplied in part by a recent food drive at the State Fair grounds. The five pounds of frozen chicken and four cartons of frozen egg mix are provided by the federal government. And the four bricks of Gouda and two gallons of milk per person are available thanks to a quick-moving alliance between Hunger Task Force, dairy farmers and the state agricultural department called the Dairy Recovery Program. 

Tussler was instrumental in bringing the last program to life. At 61, she’s helmed Hunger Task Force since 1997 and specializes in tugging government purse strings just the right way. When she heard of a failing pheasant farm unable to unload its birds to its usual cruise line customers, she got them classified dairy and used the Dairy Recovery Program to purchase them for Hmong and Ho-Chunk communities. 

She’s also a verbal warrior, outspoken about what she views as the roots of food insecurity, and she singles out tightened eligibility restrictions for FoodShare, Wisconsin’s food assistance program as especially harmful. 

“Wisconsin produces enough food to feed its citizens, part of this nation and other developing nations,” Tussler says. “We intentionally have social policies in place that prevent some people from getting access to food, and those social policies need to end.” 

Tussler says FoodShare is far more effective at managing food security than Hunger Task Force could hope to be, based on scale alone. Before the pandemic, Hunger Task Force gobbled up a quarter of Wisconsin’s overall food aid; its yearly operating budget is around $16 million. FoodShare currently spends nearly four times that much every two weeks. The chasm explains why Tussler sees private nonprofits as a supplement to state food assistance instead of the other way around. Before COVID-19, Hunger Task Force workers took the time to help clients sign up for food assistance – time they can no longer afford due to the volunteer crunch. FoodShare recipients don’t have to wait in combustible lines at a specific time every month; they can go to any participating grocery store on their own schedule. The food they buy would be more in line with their dietary and cultural practices, which pre-empts waste. Wisconsin may be the Dairy State, but not everyone drinks milk. Some of the seniors in the Stockbox line openly acknowledge that they will not use everything they get. Some refuse obvious, unwanted items they spot, but no one is closely inspecting their groceries. 

Food being distributed with the Senior Stockbox initiative (Photo courtesy of Hunger Task Force)

Just as FoodShare is more efficient at giving people the right food, so too is it better at giving food to the right people. the seniors participating in the Aug. 11 Stockbox event all qualify based on self-reported income thresholds ($1,383 per month for a single-person household), but there is no way for Hunger Task Force to verify that information on-site. Robust FoodShare vetting ensures the presence of legitimate need. 

In short, without additional aid, it looks as though we are pushing up against the limits of what food banks can do by themselves. 

“Charitable food is a great stopgap, but it’s not going to solve everybody’s needs, and I think food banks will be the first to tell you that they can’t fill all of the demand that’s being created right now by the economic disruption,” says Elaine Waxman, a Feeding America vice president, Urban Institute senior fellow and Univerity of Chicago lecturer. “UNtil the point at which families have stable income that allows them to cover their basic needs, we’re not going to see food insecurity disappear in this country.” 

Like Tussler, Waxman believes conventional food assistance programs like the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which funds FoodShare, are an obvious way to attack food insecurity fast. Compared to newly developed COVID-19 response programs, there is a solid playbook to run. “We already have a lot of experience with SNAP from the Great Recession. So we know SNAP is really the first line of defense,” she says. 

Farms to Families

THE FEDERAL government did not stand idle in the wake of growing food insecurity. A bevy of programs were launched that reveal Uncle Sam’s awesome pool of resources and the limits of urgent top-down bureaucracy. The USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program is an ingenious way to address a both sides of the pandemic-spurred food crisis. It authorizes direct purchases of agricultural products and pays suppliers to coordinate their delivery to local food banks, both propping up agribusiness and feeding vulnerable populations. Without that intervention, many crops would rot in farmers’ fields.

“The costs involved in harvesting that product, putting it in boxes, shipping it to places – that can be $5 to $10 a box,” says Ryan Dietz, vice president of operations at Heartland Produce.

In Heartland’s Kenosha plant, workers pack about 1,000 boxes a day, taking about an hour to complete. The boxes are trucked to Feeding America sites in Milwaukee, the Fox Valley and northern Wisconsin.

Heartland is an ideal choice for the program because of its established relationship with growers’ built-up logistics. Other recipients have struggled to fulfill their obligations. The vetting, rushed by necessity, resulted in some questionable contracts.

Of the first $1.2 billion approved during phase one, a disproportionately low 1% went to Wisconsin entities. Even the government-savvy Hunger Task Force saw its application denied, though it later partnered with accepted vendors.

“We know several companies that were very deserving companies that put in for bids at the first round, that probably should have gotten contracts and didn’t,” Dietz says.

Additional problems came to light as the first phases were winding down. The USDA authorized a third phase but would only contract with companies that could deliver a combined box of meat, dairy and produce. The tightened restrictions would kick many high-performing suppliers out of the pro- gram, including Heartland Produce (although it was looking into strategic partnerships to keep going). However, an eleventh-hour order overturned that decision in favor of less stringent requirements.

Food boxes at Heartland Produce in Kenosha. A worker pauses next to a pallet of boxes heading to Feeding America pantries across Wisconsin. (Photos by Matt Haas)

But there are limits to what even government-backed food assistance can do. Permanent solutions lie in addressing food insecurity’s myriad root causes. Hunger isn’t a problem we can donate our way out of. According to the Urban Institute, the biggest food security threat facing counties like Milwaukee stems from the high cost of housing. And according to Milwaukee-based Community Advocates Public Policy Institute, the real issue behind housing costs is low wages. A report from February finds that more than half of Milwaukee County households are renters, while about one in three jobs inside Milwaukee County failed to pay enough to cover the median rent of $861.

If housing and wages were not a complex enough challenge, the Urban Institute calls on places like Milwaukee County to address disparities among communities of color. “If we’re providing the same kinds of resources and strategies to everyone knowing that not everybody has the same depth of need, then we can’t expect those gaps to get better,” Waxman says. “At a minimum, we could map what the areas of highest need in those communities of color are and direct more resources to scale.”

Food banks are in the business of feeding people. They don’t provide housing or act as a lender. Nor are many organizations of any stripe prepared to renounce an official stance of color blindness. And, as the Aug. 11 Senior Stockbox shows, food banks are already near capacity without further expanding their mission. To boost food security, other services need to think about what role they can play in feeding people and how they can foster creative actions at food banks.

There are examples of effective strategies cropping up all over the country, including here in Milwaukee. Last summer, as the homeless encampment swelled underneath the I-794 bridge, Tussler inferred not just correlation but causation between hunger and homelessness. She ordered Hunger Task Force to move in to sign up people for FoodShare, hoping people could find shelter just by having access to food assistance. “I was of the opinion that many of them were single adults who had previously been able to couch-surf in somebody’s basement or attic, because they were bringing some FoodShare into the house,” Tussler says. “And when they lost their FoodShare, they lost their housing.”

Even Milwaukeeans with secure housing can lack other vital components of food security, such as transportation. At the Aug. 11 Senior Stockbox, the first people to get their boxes were the handful of walkups. One 66-year-old woman named Mary Ellen wouldn’t give her last name but would talk about the 40-minute round-trip bus ride that bookends her Stockbox experience. She also showed o her repair job on a busted axle of her granny cart. There’s no telling how many carless people would be here if not hindered by the so-called “last mile” of food distribution.

Hunger Task Force fights this issue with an 80-foot-long semitrailer housing a grocery store in miniature. Dozens of fruits and vegetables are tucked into baskets. Coolers stock meat, dairy and guacamole. Called the Mobile Market, it links up areas with limited access to healthy food by parking on their curbs, like the people living at Johnston Center Residences, a 91-unit building two blocks from Kosciuszko Park that serves homeless and disabled individuals.

This food isn’t free. It comes from Malicki’s Piggly Wiggly in Oak Creek and is priced the same as the items in that store. However, a federal grant allows Hunger Task Force to knock o 25% at the register. Hunger Task Force is selective about where it parks the Mobile Market, but once open, anyone can purchase items. Even Tussler shops here.

The homeless encampment underneath the I-794 bridge in the summer of 2019 (Photo by John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

The truck makes two stops a day, every day, except for the two days a month it’s closed for maintenance. It logs stops all over the city and beyond, from Cudahy and St. Francis to UW-Milwaukee and the far Northwest Side. Other Mobile Markets run in Racine and Kenosha counties. The stock changes by location. Experience has taught Hunger Task Force which items are in high demand at specific stops. Johnston Center Residences is particularly heavy on the meat purchases, so the coolers are loaded with extra cuts.

These innovations make adaptive solutions sound easy, though few entities possess the resources of Hunger Task Force. Even among the rare organizations that do, leaders are just as likely to butt heads as work together. Food banks may find themselves competing for the same resources or opposed on ideological grounds.

Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin is the only hunger charity that can match Hunger Task Force’s footprint in Milwaukee. This independent chapter of Feeding America is the largest in the state both in terms of population and geography, covering 65% of the state and now serving 600,000 people. An internal estimate shows the number is expected to swell another 40%, to 840,000. Yet, Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin also happens to be persona non grata around Hunger Task Force headquarters. Tussler calls them the “Death Star.”

The disagreement stems from fundamental differences in their nonprofit models. Whereas Hunger Task Force relies heavily on government aid, Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin looks to corporations for supplies. And while Hunger Task Force is both a food bank and a food pantry, Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin prefers to work behind the frontlines and distribute food to a network of independent food pantries. Because of this, Tussler describes Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin as, “like a Sam’s Club” and harbors suspicions it wants to usurp Hunger Task Force, a claim president and CEO Patti Habeck denies.

“We have no desire to take them over,” Habeck says. “They’re doing a lot of work, and that means I don’t have to be doing that same exact work. … I will never say anything negative [about Hunger Task Force]; they are doing good things in our community.”

Habeck has never met Tussler. She became president in April 2017 and says that the bad blood started under a previous director, with whom Tussler used to be friendly. She also hopes to eventually reconcile the organizations.

“I literally do this in meetings in my board room: I will always leave one spot open, and I put an agenda there. And I say, ‘There are some people that should be at this meeting.’ We cannot solve hunger, we cannot do what we need to do for all these people in need unless we’re all around the table moving in the same direction and working together to optimize our ability to serve.”

The Scale of the Problem

Nonprofits play a key role in fighting food insecurity, but government programs are significantly larger.

There is one place in Milwaukee where food insecurity is attacked on many fronts: food, housing, racial equity, collaboration, the lot of it.

There are no large grocery stores in the Lindsey Heights and Triangle North neighborhoods. Most food shops are corner stores that stock limited meat, produce and dairy. Instead, a patchwork of community organizations strives to nourish its residents. On Fond du Lac Avenue just west of I-43 is Running Rebels, a youth group that hosts The Gathering community meal program every Monday through Friday morning. The Milwaukee County Housing Division is a half-mile south down West Walnut Street, and the o ce sends agents to Running Rebels during mealtimes to o er housing assistance. Five blocks up Walnut is House of Peace, a Franciscan ministry outreach where the same men and women who ate breakfast down the street can receive dinner, along with clothing, health screenings and social services.

Half a mile northwest of Running Rebels sits Feeding America of Eastern Wisconsin’s Milwaukee headquarters. Farther north is The Tandem, a restaurant that became a lifeline to local businesses and families during the pandemic’s early days when it secured a grant to cook 1,000 daily meals for residents. Later, owner Caitlin Cullen let residents install a refrigerator on the sidewalk, stocked with items free for the taking.

Farther northwest is Neu-Life, a youth organization whose many offerings include Farmfork, a program that teaches kids gardening and cooking basics. Behind The Tandem sits Walnut Way, a community development nonprofit that invests heavily in urban agriculture. And behind Walnut Way is the site of the Fondy Farmers Market, the first in Wisconsin to accept payments from food assistance programs like FoodShare.

The Tandem hands out free meals. (Photo by Chris Kessler)

Heading back across West Fond du Lac Avenue and down North 20th Street is Alice’s Garden, a two-acre community garden that specializes in what executive director Venice Williams calls regenerative farming, which emphasizes holistic healing.

“We say we use gardening as the carrot, pun intended, to get people to come through the gate to impact their entire quality of life,” Williams says. “I’m thinking of the conversations I’ve heard in this space in the past three days. They’re about growing food. They’re about how you grandparent, how you cook food, how you deal with theft in your neighborhood.”

Though the organizations are in some sense competitors, many partner to amplify their collective impact. Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin has financially supported Alice’s Garden in the past. Alice’s Garden grows food for The Tandem, and Williams has cooked in its kitchens to help Cullen meet payroll. Walnut Way referred a client looking to start a business to Cullen – Alesia Miller now runs Soul Brew Kombucha out of The Tandem’s basement. Alice’s Garden and Walnut Way used to coordinate on youth programs – now they are both present at the Fondy Famers Market. And Walnut Way has joined with several partners to construct The Innovations and Wellness Commons, a facility designed to house event space, health and wellness services and a commercial kitchen.

The individual visions of these groups start with providing disparate basic needs, but collectively expand to take on the same central struggle. “We miss the boat when we compartmentalize everything,” Williams says. “You can’t talk food insecurity in a Black community and not talk about identity.”

In this time of great need, organizations like Alice’s Garden are thriving. Williams looks to bring in new members with each harvest, toting vegetables to neighborhood doorsteps in the hope of starting conversations. The nonprofit-dominated neighborhood it serves continues to face extraordinary challenges, but for now, spaces like Alice’s Garden are a respite – and perhaps a blueprint for a post-pandemic world.

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s October issue.

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