St. Martin de Porres Food Pantry Saturday morning volunteers.


When Hazel Wills started volunteering in the St. Martin de Porres Food Pantry three years ago, she knew the work would be rewarding, but difficult.

Homeless men and women, hungry children, women in abusive relationships who are trying to leave — these are some of the people who find their way through the food pantry doors. “I hate to see it, but it’s the reality we are dealing with,” said Wills, who has been a member of the parish for 25 years.

Wills is the assistant coordinator of the St. Martin de Porres Food Pantry, which serves about 175 families, a total of 335 individuals, each month. St. Martin de Porres is one of several food pantries in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to benefit from the annual Lenten Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Rice Bowl campaign, which starts March 6.

Every year, people in more than 14,000 faith communities across the country use “rice bowls” for almsgiving, collecting nearly $12 million annually. CRS programs around the world receive 75 percent of the money collected, while the remaining 25 percent stays in the local diocese to support hunger and poverty alleviation efforts.

“Parishes can choose to self-designate the 25 percent and use it for their own food pantries, family resource centers and meal programs, or they can send it to the archdiocese,” said Kathy Shine, who served as project coordinator of the CRS Rice Bowl campaign in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for more than 10 years.

Money entrusted to the archdiocese is then distributed to food pantries, meal programs and homeless shelters, based on a variety of considerations, said Shine. These include: ensuring multiple counties receive support, opportunities to increase capacity, identified areas of food insecurity, the need for new pantries (and seed funds to support them), and opportunities to convert an existing pantry into a choice pantry in alignment with Hunger Task Force guidelines.

In recent years, funds have been given to some food pantries to help them become eligible for Hunger Task Force support, which aids in addressing long-term sustainability.

“Funds can be used to help pantries get equipment to help them with tracking and automation: barcode scanners and scales to weigh food, or new freezers and storage,” said Shine.

Funds from the archdiocese helped St. Martin de Porres in this effort. As a result, about 50 percent of the pantry’s inventory comes from Hunger Task Force, while support from the archdiocese and partner churches — like St. Eugene Parish, Fox Point; St. Robert, Shorewood; and St. James, Menomonee Falls — account for the rest.

“I don’t think a lot of us realize how prevalent poverty is,” Wills said. “Particularly in the area where our church is located. About 39 percent of the people who live in this area are living in poverty.”

Ironically, food pantries themselves often face the same battle as those they serve. At the Mukwonago Food Pantry, keeping the wolf away from the door can be a real struggle.

“You have the same bills to pay every month, whether or not you have the means to pay them,” said Cynthia Eggleston, executive director of the Mukwonago Food Pantry/MFP Resource Center. “Maintenance issues happen with homes — they also happen with our buildings.”

New furnaces, a broken sprinkler, the exponentially increasing cost of plowing and salting, not to mention just keeping the electricity on, are all challenges the Mukwonago Food Pantry has faced this year.

“When I went to the mailbox and I saw that check from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, it was exciting,” she said. “And I am so thankful; it’s beyond words.”

Serving an estimated 565 families a month, the Mukwonago Food Pantry relies on community partnerships to survive, including schools, churches, youth groups, businesses and individuals. The MFP opened a thrift store in recent years, whose proceeds support the pantry.

In addition to providing food, the Mukwonago Food Pantry offers resources and on-site programs that focus on helping food recipients overcome the obstacles that led them to seek help.

“We started out as a way to provide temporary assistance to people who often were choosing between keeping warm and a roof over their head or putting food on their table, but you have to address the issues beyond hunger.”

Holyland Food Pantry in Fond du Lac County is also making an effort to empower clients through employment training and other resources. Seed money from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee helped the food pantry embark on a successful portable garden effort.

“The portable gardens enable our clients to grow their own food at home,” said Lori Schmitz, Holyland Food Pantry board member. The containers have necessary drainage, and typically grow tomato, lettuce and pepper plants. Clients are given instructions to help them care for the growing plants.

The pantry opened its doors in November 2014 serving 12 households and today serves 45.

“When we started the pantry, we knew there were many people in our area who were struggling with food insecurity, but reaching them was a challenge,” she said “There is a certain mindset — people don’t want to admit they need help. We had to show we were trustworthy — we aren’t going to talk about them — we really want to help.”

Holyland is 100 percent dependent upon charitable giving, Schmitz said, as it doesn’t qualify for federal programs. The pantry is housed in St. Paul’s United Church of Christ and is a mission focus of St. Mary’s of Marytown, St. John the Baptist of Johnsburg, St. Isidore the Farmer of Mt. Calvary, St. Cloud and St. Joe.

“We are constantly amazed at the blessings that God has given to our pantry,” Schmitz said. “People hear the message and want to help their neighbors but don’t know how to do it.”

One of the challenges food pantries in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee no longer have to face is wondering where to refer people who don’t reside in the area they serve.

“In my site visits, a recurring comment I would hear is ‘We get calls from people outside of our territory and we don’t know where to send them,’” Shine said. “We wanted to create a resource that would empower the food pantries.”

The result is the Alphabetical Food Pantry Directory, listed by county with zip code cross reference, which was created by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Catholic Social Justice Ministry Department. View the guide.

Beyond financial support, food pantries are also always seeking volunteers.

“Sometimes it’s sad, but the reality is we are doing something positive and letting people know that we care,” Wills said. “God blessed me to be able to have a decent job, get a good education and take care of myself. Now I give back by working in this ministry. If you want to volunteer at a pantry, it’s a rewarding experience.”

For more information about Catholic Relief Service Rice Bowls, contact Rob Shelledy, Office for Human Dignity, or visit