Two area food pantries received enough cash donations to help them pay bills and survive the next few The not-for-profit Riverwest Food Pantry, which serves 600 to 800 individuals on the northeast side of Milwaukee each month, received more than $100,000 to help pay the bills thanks to an anonymous donation of $50,000 with a challenge to match.months. Earlier in the year, Riverwest and Congregation of the Great Spirit food pantries were having trouble making ends meet; the future looked bleak. But, then, the unthinkable happened.

Riverwest brought in more than $100,000 after it received an anonymous donation of $50,000 with a challenge to match the gift, and Great Spirit benefitted from a challenge spearheaded by nationally known philanthropist Alan Shawn Feinstein, where he matched funds for each donation given in March and April.

Its coffers increased by more than $13,000.
For the past 16 years, Feinstein, a former journalist and teacher, donated $1 million each year to organizations devoted to eradicating hunger. Among organizations chosen, Feinstein matches dollar per dollar raised.

According to longtime volunteer Dee Loomis, associate director of Great Spirit Food Pantry, a goal of $10,000 was set.

“It seemed like a pie-in-the-sky amount, but the donations kept coming in and we surpassed our amount,” she said. “We raised $13,310 during those two months, well above our goal. Then, at the last minute, Ho-Chunk sent us a $3,000 check; it was wonderful.”

The church’s food pantry served more than 400 individuals in March, and was running low on supplies, after Easter, so the money will be used to replenish supplies.

More hungry mouths to feed

One-third of the people served through Riverwest Food Pantry, located on the northeast side of Milwaukee, are children. (Submitted photos courtesy Vincent Noth)The number of those with limited food resources in the food pantry’s boundaries of 10th and Lapham streets, as well as within the American Indian population, increases daily.

“Of the 402 people we serviced in April, 169 of them were children,” Loomis said. “We see this as a growing problem and often feel as if we are using a tablespoon to fill a big hole. While we service the block surrounding the parish, our zip code happens to be the Native American Tribe in our area and anyone with an ID and their tribal identification is welcome to come here, no matter where they live.”

In addition to offering food for the hungry, the parish hosts a clothing bank in the back of the old rectory.

“The winter was really tough and we had such a demand for blankets, coats, hats and mittens, that we just couldn’t keep up with that and the clothing needs,” said Loomis. “This money will be so helpful in providing food and anything we can do. Meat is really an issue and if we don’t get enough, some clients won’t have any for the holidays.”

Throughout the Feinstein Challenge, Loomis recalled many parishioners who gave what little they had to help others, as well as one woman who came to her with $5, accompanied by the message that she had little to share, but wanted to help.

“Her gift came from the heart,” said Loomis.  

Anonymous gift stuns Riverwest director

Bolstered by a $50,000 anonymous gift, members of Old St. Mary, Three Holy Women, Our Lady of Divine Providence and SS. Peter and Paul parishes raised more than $50,000 during the six weeks of Lent, concluding Easter Sunday.

Their contributions enable the not-for-profit Riverwest Food Pantry to continue serving 600 to 800 individuals each month.

Pantry director, Vincent Noth, explained they are a “choice pantry,” allowing clients to select from an assortment of fresh breads, fruits and vegetables, quality meats, and other staple food.

More than 90 percent of the food is donated. Donations are collected and prepared primarily from the four Catholic parishes. In addition, Christ Redeemer Anglican Church, Saint Mark Episcopal Church, Saint John on the Lake Retirement Community, and grocery stores, bakeries and community organizations, contribute to the pantry.

Noth struggles with the growing number of people in the midst of poverty. The need for food assistance jumped 100 percent between 2005-2012, and has remained steady since then.

Riverwest serves individuals from four zip codes, including the Riverwest-Harambee neighborhoods, where 40 percent of its residents have incomes at or below the poverty line.

“This money will help us survive, keep our doors open and to expand our outreach to families,” said Noth. “We have started a healthy recipes program with cooking demonstrations at our food distribution sessions. But, with my background in ministry and urban community development, this was an epiphany for me that a food pantry is a great platform to do development work, make connections and find out what else is going on in their lives.”

Ideas such as implementing emergency client services, including utility assistance, housing assistance and collaborating with other services to become a one-stop shop for those in need are important to Noth.

“There are people in crisis who don’t know where to go for help, and if they are sent to six different places to find help, it is daunting,” he said. “Food pantries have a natural network in their neighborhoods and it would be good if we could become a place where people can see cooking demonstrations, participate in a community garden and learn about nutrition.

“They might be getting enough calories, but are still malnourished. We want to expand and draw in more programs through food justice issues and focus on a plan to help our clients through advocacy programs and other assistance. We are still in the planning stages and need to set some clear goals and sustainability,” he added.

Pantries also dole out emotional support

Part of the success of the Lenten outreach was a three-night mission where some of the food pantry clients gave their testimonies on the helpfulness of the food pantry. For one man, the pantry, helped him feed more than his family; he received emotional support and healing as well.

After a combination tool belt and back support belt damaged the disks in his lower back, Ramon Martinez left his job as a cable television technician for the last time on Dec. 28, 2010.

“I have eight disks damaged and two need to be fused in the lower back and two a little higher,” he said. “I kept trying to work through the pain, taking ibuprofen, but I kept getting hurt, and on that day, I nearly dropped a ladder when one of my lumbar disks blew.”

Thrust into the world of chronic pain and unemployment, Martinez didn’t know how he was going to feed his two daughters, now 12 and 14. When his unemployment ran out after a year, he looked into the State Foodshare program and received $200 per month to help feed his family.

“I was so happy that I got that money and was able to help, but it would run out after two and a half weeks,” he said.

 “I remembered that there were food pantries around, so I visited one on the south side, but I had a bad experience. The lady seemed to misunderstand me and started yelling at me, ‘Do you want the food or not!’ That was the last time I went there. My wife and I left and I couldn’t go back.”

Finally, on the advice of his wife’s aunt, Martinez visited Riverwest Food Pantry and came face to face with Noth. The care and compassion he received made him feel valued and important.

“He is such a caring man and just makes that food pantry,” said Martinez. “Even though I’m not Catholic, I love the way he begins with prayer when the pantry opens, and everyone just treats you so well. We have become good friends since I began coming here. Everyone has a smile on their face and it really helps because I am 42 and never expected to be in this position at this age. I have worked hard all my life, starting with a paper route at 13 for two years.”

Pastors grateful for parishioners’ generosity

According to Fr. Timothy L Kitzke, co-pastor of the participating parishes, the parishioners gave generously because they know the importance of the work firsthand through their own volunteer service at the pantry.

“For me, and my co-pastor, Fr. Michael Michalski, we just found the anonymous donation and the generosity of the parishioners miraculous,” he said. “This anonymous family supports the mission of the parishes and came to the decision to offer this generous grant and we decided to make it a challenge grant and hoped we could match it.”

Through keeping the Lenten Mission consistent with almsgiving and staying local, Fr. Kitzke watched the parishioners extend their generosity beyond his expectations.

“I spoke with Vincent and he said that he served like 10,000 people last year, so when he came to me with the final figure of the challenge, I about dropped my teeth,” he said. “Through great Lenten sacrifices and a good Lenten mission, I saw how their sacrifices were bearing through. I am so proud of all of the parishioners. We never had to kind of harangue any of them. We just kept the message consistent for an increase in prayer, fasting and almsgiving and look at the results of their prayer and action.”