Under bright, fluorescent lights, a couple of dozen people make their way around the basement of St. Casimir Church in the Riverwest neighborhood, which has been transformed into a free Saturday morning market. In the front, two volunteers stand over a table covered in bright orange tickets, each one marked with a number. So far, more than 100 families have come to shop for groceries. It’s not yet 10 a.m.
As shoppers move through the market, they pass `a series of metal shelves, each of which advertises specific goods. On one, soups, broths and stews, paired with canned vegetables. On another, canned fruits and items such as coffee and pretzels. In one corner, an abundant spread of fresh produce fills a table. In another, A.J. Dixon, the head chef from Bay View’s Lazy Susan Cafe, demonstrates how to cook a beet green pesto and radish pasta salad.
Vincent Noth stands at the back of the room. Tall and lean, he keeps his arms crossed and his legs spread wide as though to shrink himself by a few inches. His eyes are bright and alert. Even when he’s not smiling, Noth, 47, exudes warmth. He wears dark jeans, a silver carabiner crowded with keys, and a T-shirt with the name of Kinship Community Food Center, the Catholic nonprofit formerly known as the Riverwest Food Pantry for which Noth serves as executive director. As shoppers pass by, Noth greets them with a hello and a hug. Each wears a name tag, but Noth never glances at them. He doesn’t need to.
Today, the crowd includes a handful of guests who have come to observe the Saturday market and learn about Kinship. Their visit offers Noth an opportunity to share his vision for the nonprofit he’s helmed since 2012. “It’s about food as a means to commune with each other,” explains Noth, who moves his hands in fluid, balletic gestures as though to tell a second, silent story with them. “Food is one of the most basic ways for people to bridge that distance between each other. That sense of kinship. We wanted a name that was more reflective of the loving relationships we’ve seen here through food. That’s why we changed our name.”
Leaning into the small semicircle that’s formed around him, Noth explains that, in addition to the twice-weekly free markets, Kinship also has a breakfast bar that serves hot, healthy meals. He then points to a poster where shoppers can sign up to join Feast – monthly community meals where neighbors come together to cook and share their recipes and cultures with one another. “We harvest a bunch of greens from our farm and make soup or roasted veggies,” says Noth, “and we come together to be vulnerable with each other.”
Kinship, Noth tells the group, embraces the vulnerable. “Every time we open our doors, there are folks coming in here who are going through the hardest 48 hours of their lives,” Noth says. “And it’s our joy to be like, ‘We see you. We’re here for you.’”
For Noth, the new name and logo – a hand-drawn beet – reach much deeper than simple cosmetics. In Milwaukee County, nearly 25% of people live below the federal poverty line and nearly 12% of households, or over 100,000 residents, experience food insecurity, or lack access to an adequate amount of food. In the city itself, 27% of residents live below the poverty line, and that number climbs to 40% when it comes to children. Those who live below the poverty line inevitably face some, and often severe, level of food insecurity. In other words, the needs are vast.
But Kinship, under Noth’s guidance, does not exist to offer charity. Rather, it is a place that brings neighbors together and encourages them to break bread with one another. It’s a place where faith and food help fertilize new relationships without hierarchy. Kinship is no longer a pantry, but an ecosystem. “Our job isn’t to provide services to people in need,” says Noth. “It’s not to be some kind of savior. Our job is to be reached by the people in our community and help meet each other’s needs.”
NOTH DIDN’T ALWAYS plan to return to Milwaukee. In fact, he left several times, but despite protest, something kept calling him home.
When reflecting on his childhood, Noth, who is the fourth-eldest among nine siblings, points to two overarching influences: his parents and his school. “We didn’t have a lot, and seeing my parents pour themselves out sacrificially had a big influence on me,” recalls Noth, whose father, Dominique, was the longtime theater critic at the Milwaukee Journal and whose mother, Louise, raised Noth and his siblings before returning to work as a teacher’s aide in Milwaukee Public Schools. “They just gave and gave and gave to us.”
One of the greatest gifts Noth’s parents gave him was the decision to join one of Milwaukee’s early busing programs to integrate city schools. Like many students from the city’s East Side, Noth was taken to a majority Black area in the central city – in his case, the Triangle North neighborhood and Lloyd Street School. “I think seeing the differences in those two neighborhoods at an early age really planted an awareness of inequality, but also a love for Milwaukee,” he says. “I felt so included in this predominantly Black neighborhood and school, and that was very formative for me.”
Noth brought that perspective to Rufus King High School, where he leaned into an interest in performance, a passion he came by naturally thanks to his father. (Many of Noth’s siblings pursued careers in the arts. His brother Paul is a cartoonist for The New Yorker and his sister, Jeannie, is an actress and producer who is married to stand-up comic Jim Gaffigan.)
AFTER GRADUATING, Noth headed to the prestigious school of drama at Carnegie Mellon, where he joined a competitive class of only 40 acting and musical theater students. “I remember the first week of class, they lined us all up and were like, you’re the best of the best,” recalls Noth. “And they said that in two years, there would only be 30 of us left. It was pretty cutthroat.”
Noth was cut from the acting program at the end of his second year. The news was devastating. (He returned as a directing major for his last two years of college.) “I failed,” says Noth. “I was at my lowest. I was having real anxiety around performing and real panic. I felt like all my insecurities were starting to come out.”
Noticing the changes in Noth, a friend invited him to a church in Pittsburgh not far from Carnegie Mellon’s campus. Though Noth had been raised Catholic he had mostly rejected religion by the time he left for college. But when he stepped through the doors of that church, Noth felt himself called back. “What I found was affirmation. I began to believe I was worthy.”
That same church community also introduced Noth to the work of religious and social activists like Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles who has spent much of his life counseling former gang members and inmates, and Dorothy Day, a peace activist and nun who championed the L’Arche movement, in which men and women with intellectual disabilities live with housemates who help care for them. “I was introduced to all these people who would go out to meet the needs of the broken, but who realized that it’s the marginalized who were helping them,” explains Noth. “It was a total mindset shift.”
After graduating in 1997, Noth returned to Milwaukee. His aim to help support his family when his father took a buyout from the Journal after it merged with the Sentinel. Noth painted houses for a year before decamping for Los Angeles to pursue a career in directing. On one of his trips back home, however, he met his future wife, Jessica, a youth pastor at Eastbrook Church near Lincoln Park. The two started dating and talked about living in Los Angeles together. “I thought of Milwaukee as a small town, and I wanted to go and see the world,” says Noth.
That changed when he returned home intending to propose and got into a bad car accident. “After that, I just had a sense that I was supposed to be in Milwaukee. I was being called here.”
Noth moved back to Milwaukee and, after marrying Jessica, took a job alongside her at Eastbrook Church as a youth minister. But after struggling to have children, Noth and his wife decided to make a change. “We had two dreams,” recalls Noth. “We wanted to have a bunch of kids and we wanted to live in a developing country.” So, in 2009, Noth and Jessica, both 34, joined the Peace Corps. They were stationed in Moldova in Eastern Europe.
Moldova opened Noth’s eyes to a level of poverty he had not encountered before. “I saw kids with disabilities who were without wheelchairs,” recalls Noth. “They were living in houses without windows and heated by wood. It was just a level of poverty that you don’t see in the United States.”
The destitution among Moldova’s poorest communities wasn’t the only reality Noth noticed. “One of the things I remember from Vin’s letters were stories about how food was such a deep part of the culture,” says Chris Thiel, Noth’s childhood friend who now works in legislative policy for Milwaukee Public Schools. “He would tell me about how every family had a backyard garden and how neighbors would share food and gather around it, too. And we would talk in envy because Milwaukee has lost some of that. Whether he was aware of it or not, I think that experience was a big part of his journey toward Kinship.”
Noth says his two years in Moldova sharpened his sense of purpose: “Seeing poverty with a different face somehow clarified that I needed to go home.”
The Noths returned to Milwaukee in 2011; he hoped to work on policies that would help alleviate poverty in the city. No such job emerged. After passing St. Casimir Church on countless walks, Noth eventually decided to step inside. “We’d been living in the neighborhood a long time,” says Noth, “and when we finally went into the church, one of the most vibrant things happening was the Riverwest Food Pantry, and it was run by women in their 60s, 70s and 80s.”
“I told them if they just want someone to run the pantry, I’m probably not a good fit, but if they want to see how we can build community through food, I’d be interested in that.”
What Noth saw in the basement of the church shocked him. “When they opened the doors, it was like all of my neighborhood poured in,” recalls Noth, who lives just eight blocks from St. Casimir. “I had been pining in my living room, hoping to be part of systemic change, while there was this place just five blocks from my house that helped hundreds of people every week.”
In 2012, not long after Noth began volunteering, news spread that Donna Fletcher, who had long run the pantry, planned to step down. Fletcher encouraged him to apply to run the place. “I told them if they just want someone to run the pantry, I’m probably not a good fit,” recalls Noth. “But if they want to see how we can build community through food, I’d be interested in that.” A few months later, Noth took the job of executive director.
NOTH’S FIRST MOVES were small, like retooling the registration system. Previously, each shopper had a physical file attached to their name, thousands of records stored in a formidable, unwieldy analog filing system. Because of it, every new shopper had to fill out a set of paperwork before receiving groceries. Noth tossed the files and replaced them with a digital system that logged shoppers online – a system that Noth says around 10 other Milwaukee pantries have since implemented.
Next, Noth began to address the food being stocked each week. In a city where 40% of residents are at high risk for developing diabetes – numbers which nearly double in Black neighborhoods – weekly portions of donuts, muffins, sugary drinks and breakfast cereals caused as many problems as they solved. Noth began to build a network of partners – grocery stores, bakeries, restaurants – where he’d rescue a variety of foods that would otherwise get tossed in the trash. Soon, the pantry started to offer a healthier mix of proteins, dairy, meats and fresh produce.
Then Noth turned to the culture. He started inviting local chefs to give cooking demonstrations so shoppers had not only access to fresh produce but knew how to cook with it, too. He introduced the communal Feast meals and took over a former Growing Power urban farm that now produces 15,000 pounds of produce a year. He developed Stride, a group of volunteers and employees who help connect residents to a variety of social services. “The goal was to create a place where both food and community offer nourishment,” says Noth.
And nourish it has. Kinship’s annual report is filled with numbers that indicate as much: In any given year, Noth and his team distribute more than 300,000 pounds of food and feed nearly 20,000 Milwaukee residents. But that’s not necessarily the point. “You can hit a metric like pounds of food moved or a head count of people receiving food, but it doesn’t do anything to investigate why there is so much need,” says Caitlin Cullen, the former chef and restaurateur who was hired as Kinship’s food center director in January. “But Vin is also interested in the couple dozen people each year whose lives have been fundamentally changed. No other nonprofit seems to do that work out loud.”
Noth refers to that overarching view as the “thousands, hundreds and dozens” model. Thousands of residents will come through the doors each year and receive healthy, nutritious food; hundreds will receive crisis assistance, attend Feast meals or visit the farm; only dozens will begin to truly heal and find stability in their lives.
“Ask yourself how you can make a difference. Ask yourself who you can learn from. And keep coming back and keep showing up.”
Cullen is particularly interested in supporting the “dozens” at Kinship. That’s what attracted her to the job after running The Tandem, the restaurant-turned-food bank where she turned out tens of thousands of free meals during the pandemic. Long-term, meaningful change, says Cullen, starts with hiring Riverwest and Harambee residents to help run Kinship. This would be a meaningful transformation for the organization, too, which has been led by an almost entirely white staff despite serving an overwhelmingly Black and Brown population. “I’m committed to holding up a mirror to those blind spots,” says Cullen. “I’m that annoying mosquito that keeps coming up with ways to open our staff to a different perspective.”
Noth, for his part, never swats her ideas away. “He is somebody who will explore any possibility provided that the outcome is a better city and a better world for all people to live in,” reflects Cullen. “His heart is endlessly well-intended.”
BACK IN THE BASEMENT, it’s now closer to 11 a.m., and Noth leads his visitors upstairs and into the chapel. There, he will soon give a 45-minute training for a group of volunteers – most of whom hail from the suburbs and wealthier parts of Milwaukee – who have spent the morning helping shoppers navigate the market. (Kinship trains more than 1,000 new volunteers each year.)
Once the group of nearly 30 settles into the church pews, Noth takes his place at the front. He launches right in, starting with a history lesson about the church, which was built by Polish immigrants. “It reminds us,” says Noth, “that when a community is of one accord, there’s nothing we can’t do.”
He then turns to the young people in the audience. He tosses them several rapid-fire questions: What’s your favorite grocery store? What makes this market different? Why are folks coming to this market?
Some answer while others stay mum. Then the facts come out. Noth tells the group that a third of all the food Kinship gives out each year goes to children. More than half of those children live in single-parent households. Four in 10 children live in poverty and experience chronic food insecurity.
After a few minutes, Noth pivots to Milwaukee history, starting with the Great Migration of Black Americans into Milwaukee. He discusses white flight and the collapse of industry. He rolls through systems – education, transportation, criminal justice – that have transformed Milwaukee into two separate, unequal cities.
It turns out this session is more sermon than instruction.
The bells begin to ring overhead. His time is almost up. Taking advantage of the lull, one volunteer raises his hand. “If we were to walk away with one lesson today, what would you want that to be?” he asks.
Noth places his hands on the edge of the first row of pews and leans forward. He has given this same lecture hundreds of times. But he still considers this answer. “I want you to walk away thinking you have a lot to learn,” he says. “And maybe pick one thing and become a student of it. Ask yourself how you can make a difference. Ask yourself who you can learn from. And keep coming back and keep showing up.” Noth pauses and looks out at his audience. He might as well be talking about himself.