With one unexpected life-changing event, such as a loss of wages, a medical emergency or a worldwide pandemic, people who have never needed help before can find themselves visiting a food pantry for the very first time.
“It’s hard to ask for help,” acknowledges Marty Lee, executive director at the Waushara County Food Pantry. “It’s our job to make sure that we provide access without judgement. Everybody goes through hard times in life, and when people are struggling for whatever reason, we want them to feel comfortable reaching out and trust that we will be there to help.”
The can-do attitude and collaborative spirit of the Waushara County Food Pantry has resulted in two years of profound growth. They’ve gone from distributing just over 3 million pounds of food to families in need in 2019 to more than 8.5 million pounds in 2021.
At the height of the pandemic, this rural food pantry was running nine mobile pantries per week in addition to food distributions out of its primary site, located on the outskirts of Wautoma. All while supporting and assisting 12 smaller rural pantries in the area.
“Thanks for all of the hard work in getting donations of food,” a pantry guest writes in a thank you note. “We are so grateful for the help with our depleted grocery budget.”
Lee says that it was not uncommon for her to spend 60 hours a week during the pandemic managing the pantry’s fleet of two semis and three refrigerated trucks, coordinating 300 volunteers, and sourcing food from regional food banks, government programs, and local donors.
“Over time, there was a realization that this has grown into more than what a volunteer could reasonably be asked to do and it has been at that point for years,” says board president Joanne Nelson. “The issue was that we didn’t have a stable enough budget to make that commitment to hire someone.”
A $75,000 grant from from the Basic Needs Giving Partnership within the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation, which is supported by the U.S. Venture Fund for Basic Needs, the J.J. Keller Foundation and other community partners, helped the Waushara County Food Pantry take that important first step to move to a paid half-time executive director and half-time program coordinator. Another $4,300 Community Impact Fund Nonprofit Resilience Grant helped to provide much needed technology to manage office and warehouse operations. And the pantry team’s unwavering faith that there is more than enough food and funding for everyone continues to be met with an outpouring of support from near and far.