WayForward: Local food pantries issue call to action, “Dane County, we need your help.”

MADISON – A coalition of 36 Dane County food pantries released a letter to the community on Tuesday, sounding an alarm about the rising number of people facing food insecurity and the need for both immediate support and longer-term solutions to the challenges of distributing enough food to meet the growing need.

The letter, published as a full-page ad in Tuesday’s print edition of the Wisconsin State Journal, begins: “Dane County, we need your help.” The cost of the ad was co-sponsored by United Way of Dane County and the newspaper.

“As Dane County food pantries, we serve thousands of people in our community each day. Our shared mission is to make sure our neighbors don’t face hunger,” the letter said. “But we are facing a serious challenge.”

The food pantries also held a press conference Tuesday morning at the state Capitol, where they were scheduled to be joined by local officials and community leaders, including Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, Janel Heinrich, Executive Director – Public Health Madison & Dane County, state legislators, county supervisors, and other invited guests.

“Because of the urgency of the situation, we are coming together for the first time as food pantries to make our community aware of the challenges we face in meeting the need,” said Ellen Carlson, Executive Director for WayForward Resources. “Our current resources can only stretch so far.”

Their call to action comes as visits to many pantries in the fastest-growing county in Wisconsin have more than doubled in the past two years. The result of this increased need is pantries are spending more money on food than ever before as the options they have to keep shelves stocked “continue to shift and are more limited than they were just a few years ago,” the letter said. The pantries stress that buying food in bulk is more expensive now and the traditional suppliers of free food for pantries can’t keep up with the demand.

“The dual effect of the high cost of food and more people needing help poses a significant challenge to all local pantries,” Julie Bennett, CEO & Executive Director at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul — Madison, said. “This is the mission we’re called to — to help people in need. Our hope is that more people in Dane County will join us by giving what they can this month, next month, and into the future. This is a long term issue we can only address together.”

Pantry leaders said the pressure will rise in the coming weeks as kids have less access to free food with schools out for the summer.

Millions of people in this country are just one job loss or health emergency away from hunger,” said Marcia Kasieta, Business Director of Badger Prairie Needs Network in Verona. “Food insecurity in Dane County is real and as the region grows so does the demand for food pantry services. Pantries are working double-time to address this increase.”

The food pantries’ letter explained what is driving demand, including higher food prices, dramatic increases in rent and the fact that federal assistance that helped people make ends meet during the pandemic is gone. The most recent data on food insecurity in Dane County shows an increase in people not having enough to eat and not knowing where their next meal is coming from. According to the Mind the Meal Gap reportrecently released by Feeding America, nearly 13% of kids in Dane County were food insecure in 2022, up from 7.5% in 2021. That increase was even before local pantries started seeing sharp upticks in demand.

“It is increasingly hard for families to make ends meet, and with very little government support for families post-pandemic, we are continuing to see more and more households turning to food pantries for help,” said Catie Badsing, Manager of Food Security Programs for the Sun Prairie Food Pantry at Sunshine Place. “Pantries are spending more on food than ever before to keep our shelves stocked.”

There is not a quick or easy fix to food insecurity and the structural and economic factors that drive it, according to the letter. But pantries say this is “a critical moment for us to come together for our neighbors. There are a number of immediate actions people in our community can take to support local pantries in meeting the need, including:

-Organize a food drive for your local pantry

-Look at your own budget to figure out how much you can donate to your local pantry to support neighbors in need; give monthly if you can to provide a steady stream of support.

-Reach out to your local pantry and ask what food items they need most and buy those items to donate when you go to the grocery store.

-Volunteer your time. There are a variety of opportunities to get more involved in helping food pantries support the community.

Community support is how pantries are able to serve thousands of people in need every day, but we need more people to join our mission,” said Rhonda Adams, Executive Director of The River Food Pantry. “There are things people can do right now — donations of money, food, and volunteer support are vital to helping us meet this record need. We believe our community has the power and resources to help ensure local pantries can continue to be there for our neighbors who rely on us to feed themselves and their families.”

Pantries also urged local, county, state, and federal officials, as well as other community leaders, to help find long-term solutions to food insecurity.

“Our pantries are not failing, quite the contrary,” said Letesha Nelson, President and Executive Director, Goodman Community Center. “Our pantries are collectively stepping up, but our efforts are not sustainable without more help given our current infrastructure that relies heavily on in-kind donations and volunteer participation.”