Every two weeks, about 30 hungry families from Milwaukee’s South Side rely on the generosity of the food pantry in the basement of St. Anthony of Padua Parish’s rectory. In an effort not to be exclusionary, the food pantry does not require guests to show a driver’s license or proof of residency.Luke Spehar, a Catholic recording artist from St. Paul, Minn., will appear in concert on Friday, Feb. 28 at St. Anthony School, Milwaukee, in a benefit for the St. Anthony Parish food pantry. (Submitted photo courtesy Luke Spehar) 

“Other food pantries will also limit guests to people within immediate zip code,” said coordinator Secular Franciscan Kurt Keidl. “We will give to whoever comes to our door.”

This leniency often means that there is a shortage of food.

To make sure the doors stay open this winter, the campus ministry program at St. Anthony High School is sponsoring a benefit concert for the food pantry on Feb. 28, featuring music by Luke Spehar.

Admission is a freewill offering of $10 for the event, which begins at 6:30 p.m. at 1669 S. Fifth St. in the school to the right of St. Stanislaus Church. The Ramblin’ Bobs will open for Spehar, who takes the stage at 7:30 p.m. 

Spehar is a friend of St. Anthony High School’s new campus minister, Tommy Fassbender, who feels that the musician’s broad appeal will attract a diverse crowd.

“We can target adults as well as college students … the whole Catholic community,” said Fassbender.

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     A benefit concert featuring Luke Spehar will be held on Friday, Feb. 28 at St. Anthony School, 1669 S. Fifth St., Milwaukee, located in the school to the right of St. Stanislaus Church. Admission is a freewill offering of $10. 
     The evening begins with a 6:30 p.m. concert by the Ramblin’ Bobs; Spehar to take the stage at 7:30 p.m.
     Food donations are accepted at the St. Anthony Parish rectory, 1711 S. 9th St. Milwaukee. Financial contributions marked “food pantry” can be mailed to 1711 S. Ninth St. Milwaukee, WI 53204.

Spehar is an acoustic singer-songwriter from St. Paul, Minn., whose music is inspired by his Catholic faith. A former seminarian, he has toured the country performing for secular and religious audiences, and was the opening act for Grammy winner Ben Harper’s 2012 tour of the United States and Canada. 

All proceeds from the event will benefit the food pantry, which faced the threat of closure one Saturday several weeks ago when the shelves were bare. If not for the generosity of the campus ministry program at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School – longtime supporters who brought food donations at the last minute – the pantry would have had to turn guests away at the door.

The food pantry has a long history at the parish, founded by German immigrants in 1872. The ministry was discontinued several years ago, a decision that some at the parish – including Keidl – found hard to accept.

“The reason we were given (for the closure) was that there was no need for duplicating ministries in the area,” said Keidl, a St. Anthony parishioner of 30 years. 

Volunteers package donations to the St. Anthony Parish, Milwaukee food pantry which serves about 30 families every two weeks. (Submitted photo courtesy the St. Anthony food pantry) When the current pastor, Fr. Cliff Ermatinger, came onboard in 2009, Keidl and others pushed for the reopening of the food pantry.

Fr. Ermatinger agreed to the initiative, although he said all credit goes to his parishioners and their sense of charity.

“All I did was recognize the need, mention it to my parishioners, and they took it from there,” he said. “I’m blessed to have such charitable and dedicated parishioners who see Christ in each other and especially in the needy. They’re motivating, inspiring and a lot of fun … they work well as a team.”

While there are other food pantries in the area, including the United Southside Food Pantry and Despensa de la Paz, these organizations require guests to present state IDs for every adult in the family, and sometimes require proof of residency in the food pantry’s zip code. Food pantries that are recipients of federal aid must provide proof that their guests are eligible for emergency food assistance and reside in the pantry’s geographic location.

While he understands the need for these requirements, Keidl says they often present a moral issue that he and fellow organizers find difficult to overcome. The 53204 zip code is one of the poorest in the city, with an above-average rate of unemployment and below-average household income.

“We have immigrant families; they might not have any ID at all and they have no stable place of residency and they don’t pay bills here,” he said. “What do you do? Do you close the door on them and say, ‘No, you can’t have food?’”A guest looks at items offered by the St. Anthony Parish, Milwaukee, food pantry. (Submitted photo courtesy the St. Anthony food pantry)

The congregation is largely Hispanic, and the parish bulletin is printed with English and Spanish versions side-by-side. The 53204 zip code also reports a significant percentage of the population as being foreign-born.

The St. Anthony Food Pantry requests means of identification, but does not require it. This makes them ineligible for enrollment in programs like Harvest for the Hungry or the USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program. Keeping the shelves stocked is a constant struggle – one that Fassbender hopes the benefit concert will alleviate.

“I was there one Saturday and it was a slow day and there was still, like, 40 people coming through for their family,” he said. At St. Anthony High School, he said, 99 percent of the students qualify for a free lunch.

“This is definitely an act of faith,” said Keidl. “We do this because we are compelled by the love of Jesus Christ. We don’t just do this as a humanitarian venture. It would be so easy to quit if that’s all it was.

“As Christ said in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25, verse 25, ‘When I was hungry you gave me food’ and we do believe that the guests that we feed are the Lord dressed in disguise of the poor.”

Ultimately, Keidl said, the ministry of the food pantry is about so much more than just food. He sees it as an invaluable tool for providing fellowship and support to those who are disadvantaged.

“Some of the volunteers say, ‘Well, it was kind of dead today; I don’t feel that I did that much.’ And I say, ‘Well, wait a minute; you sat down with that man. You talked with him, you listened to his whole story. That’s just as important as giving people food.”