Nancy Kavazanjian and her husband Charles Hammer have been farming together for 43 years. In that time, they have learned that there is enough food in this world for everyone — it’s just a matter of getting it to the people who need it.
Take the Hammer farm in Beaver Dam, which dates to the 1860s. Hammer and Kavazanjian farm just less than 2,000 acres, mostly commodity corn, soybean and wheat. Most of the corn goes to ethanol plants around Wisconsin, the soybeans are processed out of state, and the wheat will end up in pasta, cookies and cakes.
On top of all that, Hammer and Kavazanjian designate a few areas of the farm to plant sweet corn for family and friends, yielding a harvest so abundant they usually have trouble finding a place to go with it all.
Contrast that to the food desert of the 53206 zip code in urban Milwaukee, where families have limited access to fresh, healthy food. There are a host of local organizations who are working to change that reality, including the MacCanon Brown Homeless Sanctuary (MBHS).
“During our first weeks of offering a doorway ministry out of the back door of our facility in 2017, it was heartbreaking to witness the hopelessness, undernutrition and despair of our outreach guests,” recalled MacCanon Brown, founder of MBHS, which has become a major food source to more than 200 households in the 53206 zip code.
“There was no retail presence close by,” said Brown. “The many who have no cars and don’t know anyone with a car only had access to high-priced corner food marts, mainly selling chips, soda, beer, cigarettes and very little food.”
So when Hammer and Kavazanjian found themselves with a surplus of sweet corn a few years back, a friend suggested they get in touch with Brown to see if they could use a delivery of freshly harvested produce — and a beautiful partnership was born.
Three years later, Hammer and Kavazanjian continue to make regular deliveries to MBHS, bringing not only their sweet corn but a variety of other foods and goods, from pumpkins in the fall to ice cream in the summer, and even a farm animal or two for good measure.
“We just feel like we’re lucky we can grow food — we feel very fortunate that we are able to eat and buy all the food we need,” said Kavazanjian, who along with her husband, is a member of St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Beaver Dam. “When we can share it, it’s a blessing for us.”
The drive from Beaver Dam to the area of Milwaukee where MBHS is located is a little more than an hour. Sometimes the couple makes the trip together; other times, one is busy in the field and the other goes solo. Their bounty is varied — if it’s early fall, there’s bound to be some sweet corn. A few weeks ago, it was live baby chicks and a mini horse for the local kids to cuddle. Often, it’s items obtained at a discount by their friends in the agriculture community, like pumpkins and squash that’s gone unsold at the end of the season or handmade soaps from their daughter Danielle Clark, who runs a strawberry farm in Mayville.
Through a local connection, the couple obtains “pullet” eggs, laid by hens who are not yet mature. Usually smaller in size and likely to be discarded, these eggs nevertheless are a valuable source of protein. Hammer and Kavazanjian pay a farmer friend 50 cents per dozen for the eggs; the friend cleans and packs them, and the couple drives them to Milwaukee.
“We’re doing two things — eliminating food waste and helping the farmer, and we’re donating to the MacCanon Brown Homeless Sanctuary,” said Kavazanjian.
They are always on the lookout for an opportunity to connect the MBHS family with food resources. One weekend, there was a huge snowstorm that meant a low customer turnout for the local Amish bakery, who found themselves with a surplus of unpurchased, freshly baked goods.
“They can’t store it, because they don’t have a refrigerator,” explained Kavazanjian. “On Monday, we picked up the bread and pies and cakes and other baked goods, and drove them down.”
The couple is also connected to local food pantries in Beaver Dam and Fox Lake, where they are often able to obtain personal care items and canned goods.
“Somebody called us from the Fox Lake Food Pantry and said, ‘We have a whole semi of ice cream’ — it was still good, it wasn’t outdated, but for whatever reason it couldn’t be sold,” said Kavazanjian. Hammer jumped in his SUV, filled it with ice cream, piled it in insulated blankets on top and drove it all down to the Hepatha Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, where the MBHS performs outreach regularly.
“It’s gotten to be really a community effort, where other food pantries help us and we help them, and we take what we can to Milwaukee,” she said.
Brown said that receiving fresh, quality food “visibly dismantles (our guests’) sense of hopelessness.”
“People have become healthier over time, right before our eyes,” Brown said. “There is no question (Charlie and Nancy) do this to live their faith. The distance they travel, their provision of sweet corn, eggs and other farm fresh food they bring for us to share, their teamwork with their neighboring farmers, all create a luminous message of true compassion direct from the heart of Jesus. Our guests receive what they bring and they also feel the love.”
“I always tell people we get as much out of it as we give,” said Kavazanjian. “We’ve met so many wonderful people, and the community at the homeless sanctuary is really wonderful. It is a matter of sharing and caring, and we do believe in that, we always have, but it is just as rewarding and fulfilling to us as it is to the people we serve.”