"Look at this! Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes.”
It’s a recent weekday morning as Joe Mingle, operations manager at Healthy Food for All Dane County, wades through dozens of cardboard boxes in a room just off the loading dock at Second Harvest Foodbank. The containers are stacked in towers as tall as a person, full of perishable items like multigrain rolls, vegan cream cheese and rotisserie chickens.
The main hall of the 47,000-square-foot warehouse is organized into aisles of industrial shelving holding containers sorted by food type. It looks like a big-box home improvement store, but for groceries. Hot dog buns, English muffins and loaves of rye fall into one giant cardboard box marked “bread.”
“Onions,” Mingle says, pointing toward a large pile of them. “Breathe through your mouth.”
All of this food, about 1.68 million pounds per month, is being prepared for delivery to folks experiencing food insecurity in Dane County and southwestern Wisconsin.
Second Harvest gets supplies from several distributors. Fresh produce from local farms is collected at the Epic Systems campus in Verona, where volunteers compile boxes to be sent to the main warehouse. Dry goods, meats and other fresh items are delivered directly to the food bank on the east side, off Pflaum Road.
After the product arrives at the warehouse, perishables go in the cooler and the rest is sorted and organized by volunteers, then transported via forklift and placed alongside similar items. Second Harvest redistributes it all to regional pantries and directly to clients through its own mobile service.
The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed both the numbers and demographics of people experiencing food insecurity, as well as the systems created to address it. Second Harvest shipped out 65% more food in the first two months of the crisis than the same time last year.
Feeding America, the country’s largest organization of food banks, predicts that in 2020, food insecurity will affect 12% of the Dane County population. That’s an increase of 63% over the same time period in 2018.
In real numbers, that means 24,620 more people will need help this year. In the 16 counties Second Harvest serves, that number reaches approximately 64,000.
“The reality is, those original people who were food insecure, they’re probably still food insecure,” said Kristopher Tazelaar, director of marketing and communications at Second Harvest. “The additional people, these are folks who probably have never had to worry about putting food on their tables prior to the pandemic hitting. These are folks who were able to make ends meet prior to getting laid off or furloughed. These are folks who have never really had to struggle with hunger. This is all new to them.”
“A lot of them are middle-class folks that don’t have experience with social service entities,” Mingle said. “They don’t know how to ask for help, they don’t know where to go. And people don’t like to go into pantries. They feel shame, they feel embarrassed. They don’t like to ask for help.” ￼
“Everyone was panicking”
When Gov. Tony Evers issued Wisconsin’s statewide “safer at home” order on March 25, local systems set up to address food insecurity had to pivot overnight. Churches and pop-up pantries closed their doors. Traditional pantries, where clients walked around a room choosing the items they wanted, were no longer safe. Children who received food at school or after-school programs were suddenly cut off. Need grew exponentially overnight, and organizations had to figure out how to handle it.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It was wild,” said Jon Lica, Corporate Giving Manager at Goodman Community Center, one of Second Harvest’s partners. He managed the organization’s food pantry at the time. “The first three weeks, it was pure chaos, because everyone was panicking.
“And when I say everyone, I don’t mean everyone within our organization. I mean every person you talked to had no idea what was going on. Go back to March 20, and try to think about every conversation you had with every person professionally, personally. There was so much uncertainty. We immediately saw a triple increase in demand, three times what we normally would serve, just basically overnight.”
By summer, some people had gone back to work. Demand plateaued. Goodman’s new normal is about 30% more than before COVID-19.
“I think that the long-term effects of this are still to be determined,” Lica said.
On June 16, Tracy Hill drove her white delivery van into the roundabout at the Goodman Center to pick up pantry groceries for her family of three. Hill runs her own business as an independent contractor for local document delivery.
Pre-COVID, Hill had never been to a food pantry, but she started coming here the week of March 17. After many businesses shuttered, her regular deliveries slowed, too.
“Once my work scaled down, I kind of sat still and said, ‘OK. How am I going to get a little extra food into the house without spending the little reserves I have in cash?’” said Hill. She searched for pantries, and Goodman came up.
The sudden increase in demand reverberated through Second Harvest, partly because the supply side had shifted, too. New protocols released in March from the USDA required pantries to suspend household food drives (this rule was amended in June). In addition, sister food banks that normally donated surplus items were feeling the strain themselves and didn’t have stock to spare. As restaurants started to close, a surge of perishables came in, but that was not a sustainable source.
For years, Second Harvest promoted a choice system, delivering food in bulk to pantries where clients could choose what they wanted. After the need increased rapidly with the crisis, the organization shifted to a fixed system to get the product out faster. Volunteers compiled smaller boxes containing a variety of food meant for individual clients and delivered them to their local partners for distribution, including Badger Prairie Needs Network and The River Food Pantry.
As part of the money that Wisconsin received from the federal CARES Act in March, $95 million was given to Dane County to be used for pandemic-related expenses this year. In total, Second Harvest received $6 million of these funds. That money goes to purchase food for Dane County only, the most populated area the food bank serves. Right now, this money is allocated through October.
Since static pantries were no longer operational, distribution had to shift. The Goodman Center was already serving families in Madison’s north and east side neighborhoods in after-school and preschool programs. The organization quickly responded to the crisis by creating a meal delivery system to provide for these families.
Goodman also started a drive-thru pantry service that now operates Tuesdays through Thursdays. It was able to maintain a kind of choice pantry: clients got the box that Second Harvest put together, plus extra options like meat, produce, diapers and personal care items.
Through providing these services, Goodman was able to retain some of the community aspects of its organization, despite not being fully open to the public.
“For me, I get to see some of the families that I work with, some of the kids,” said Barry Davis. Davis, a middle school teacher, works in the youth program at Goodman. He now distributes food at the drive-thru pantry.
“When I first started doing this months ago, I wasn’t seeing our students,” Davis said. “I get to see some of them here.”
Even before the pandemic, food pantries had begun to move away from traditional models. Typical food pantries, open certain hours a few times a week, weren’t meeting the needs of many working families. For people without a car, it’s difficult to transport large quantities of food back home. It’s also hard for people who work several jobs and have limited availability to get to a certain place at a certain time.
The Darbo Pantry Project, formed in spring 2019, is an example of how new distribution methods had begun to address these needs. When the food pantry operated by the Salvation Army shut down in Worthington Park, Mingle and his partners conceived of supplying food like a community supported agriculture (CSA) share by delivering produce and prepared foods directly to the homes of subscribers.
“We’re going to deliver the food directly to people who need it, not expect them to do more to get it,” Mingle said. “They’re already stressed, they’re already busy. They got kids, they got work, they got school. We need to make it as easy and convenient as possible to help people access the food they need.”
Recently, Mingle has been taking the idea one step further. He started what he calls a distributed food network, where he brings a large volume of perishable food directly from Second Harvest to community residents, tapping into existing systems within low income neighborhoods.
“I literally just bring an entire van full of food and give it not to organizations, but to residents who have their own social networks within those communities, and they distribute it all for me,” Mingle said. “They know who needs help, and they know who likes what, and they know who eats pork and who doesn’t. And they help get it all out.”
As well as reaching communities that might be more difficult for site-based pantries, this method reduces waste of Second Harvest’s product. Traditional pantries have limited cooler space as well as limited hours, so “they don’t really want to take a bunch of perishable stuff because they don’t have a place to store it,” Mingle said. “They can’t distribute it before it goes bad.”
“To be able to get produce from farms or leftovers from grocery stores or a huge volume of stuff from places like Walmart, and get it out to people, it has to be distributed like ‘Bam!’ right now. I roll in with a van to unload it, and it’s gone in a half hour because it has to get into someone’s fridge.”
Small farms, big impact
In addition to swift changes in food distribution, the supply side changed quickly as well. At Second Harvest before COVID, 80% of food came from donations and 20% was purchased.
Now, because of restrictions on donations and changes in the supply chain, 40% is donated and 60% is purchased. To make up that difference in Dane County, Second Harvest uses money from the CARES Act to purchase food.
It’s not just any food. One of the stipulations of the CARES Act is that the funds should stay in the community and be used to support local farmers whenever possible.
Scott Williams was prepared to help make that connection. He had already been running a cooperative network out of his Mount Horeb area farm Garden to Be, working with eight other farms to help sell their vegetables to restaurants. When that business disappeared overnight, the CARES Act money stepped in.
“Farms that serve Dane County are directly affected by the loss of restaurants and the limited amount of business we can do at farmers markets,” said Williams. “Even in the markets that are open and allow walk-up, the demand is still lower in a lot of cases.”
Williams went from working with eight local farms to 24 in order to supply Second Harvest with the amount of produce that they need. He created a system to pull the product together and deliver it twice per week.
Crossroads Community Farm in Cross Plains has been working with Williams. In addition to the connection with Second Harvest, Cassie Noltnerwyss and her husband Mike feed 850 families with CSA vegetable shares.
Pre-COVID, 40% of Crossroads’ sales were wholesale to co-ops and restaurants. That income went down dramatically in March. The CARES Act money, through Second Harvest, has been a lifeline for farms like theirs. Those funds are “keeping local farmers afloat,” said Noltnerwyss, and Williams has been a key connector.
“This is what local ag is,” said Noltnerwyss. “You can’t order off a Sysco truck and have it tomorrow. Sometimes the field conditions change, or they thought they had it and then hail came. Or they have twice the amount they thought they’d have. That can make institutional purchasing really difficult.”
This situation is a test for buyers and local farmers alike. Williams wants to make clear that institutional purchase of local produce is possible, despite its challenging reputation.
“Local farmers can provide big numbers,” Noltnerwyss said. “It’s not that they can’t do it, it’s that the logistics are complicated. … In the future, in a post-COVID future, we really ought to be trying to feed ourselves locally.”
“We want to provide as healthy a product as possible,” said Tazelaar of Second Harvest. “We know that local agriculture provides that product. We’re not relying on something from Ohio that’s in a box.”
When COVID hit, a few things happened for the Noltnerwysses. First, a lot more people became attracted to local food. Interest in CSA had been flagging in recent years, but these days, Crossroads Community Farm has a waitlist of 250 families. Pre-COVID, they never had enough interest to even create a formal waitlist.
“There’s a little part of me that’s frustrated as a local farmer, that it is taking a pandemic for people to realize how important local food systems are,” said Noltnerwyss. “I’m very appreciative of the interest. I’m also a little nervous that after the pandemic, everybody will just go back to buying from wherever again. But the little part of me that hopes that the community would actually step behind a farm like ours.”
Before the pandemic, Crossroads had been looking at ways to get more involved in giving back to her community.
“There’s a lot of intersectionality between racial justice, food justice and local food,” said Noltnerwyss. When COVID came, it was an obvious choice to help people experiencing food insecurity.
Cassie Noltnerwyss connected with the Mellowhood Foundation, a non-profit organization serving the Meadowood neighborhood, and discovered they were already doing home deliveries of food to families in need. She was surprised at how easy it was to just partner with them and send CSA shares to the main office for distribution to local folks experiencing insecurity.
“COVID kind of greased the tracks for the delivery logistics that weren’t really there before,” said Noltnerwyss. “And it also greased the tracks for having that community connection already. So it’s not me, some strange farmer that you’ve never met before, sending my person into your neighborhood. It is somebody you already know, and you have a relationship with, bringing you the food.”
She had originally approached a business in Madison to fund the donations to Mellowhood. But as the crisis continued, that organization had to step back. Instead, she solicited money from her customer base, and was shocked when she raised $20,000 in three days.
“My own customer base is paying for all this food to go free to people in the neighborhood,” said Noltnerwyss.
Crossroads Community Farm has been able to partner with other food distribution channels in more informal ways as well. Recently, Crossroads had an extra 200 heads of cabbage, so Cassie contacted Mingle to see if he could distribute it in his distributed food network. Mingle said he could, but he couldn’t pay for it. Instead, she was able to pay herself from funds her original donor was able to offer — not as much as they had initially proposed, but enough to put into projects like this one.
Within the next few weeks, Second Harvest is anticipating a surge in need. On July 25, the moratorium on evictions for people living in federally-funded housing expires. On July 31, the enhanced unemployment insurance ends. Everyone’s $1,200 check has been spent.
“Unless there’s another stimulus package, demand is going to skyrocket. We’re preparing for that,” said Tazelaar.
Grocery stores have found that, when demand shifts dramatically, local producers can step in when national supply chains fail.
Metcalfe’s Market is among the grocery stores that donates food to Second Harvest. Like supermarkets all over the country, the company experienced disruption in its ability to procure usual orders at the beginning of the crisis.
“For the month of March, it was like 20 days of Christmas Eve, right in a row,” said Tim Metcalfe, president of Metcalfe’s. “Everything came to a head in terms of buying, and manufacturers just couldn’t be prepared for that.”
The dramatic operational shifts food pantries made were echoed in the national food supply system.
“The nationals were out of stock, but our local suppliers — they got spiked, but they were close by,” Metcalfe said. “For instance, one day we were completely wiped out of eggs, and the next day, a local supplier showed up with five cases. We saw that across the board. The soap section was completely wiped out, and then Madison Soap Company came in. We had no more yogurt, Chobani was slammed, but Yodelay from Madison came in.”
Mingle said this pushes the system toward a more local focus.
“I think one of the messages or lessons of the coronavirus thing is re-localizing production,” Mingle said. “We’ve got to grow our own food. We have to have some level of real food security, based on local food production and processing.
“There’s a much wider, or higher level of consciousness in the community about surplus food and not letting stuff go to waste,” he added. “And making sure that we help those who need it. Before, I think people were somewhat cavalier and just like, ‘Who cares, throw out leftovers.’ Now people are like, ‘I can’t waste this food.’ So that’s really good.”
That attitude shift has helped Benito Albaran Portillo, a client at the Goodman Center. As temporary staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Albaran has experienced reduced income since the crisis began. He heard about Goodman from his neighbors, and he comes every week to get groceries for his family of four.
Albaran said that in addition to reduced income, with everyone staying at home and having the air conditioning on, his electricity bill has gone up.
“It’s been very helpful, because of the reduction,” Albaran said of the pantry services at Goodman. “I can provide for my family with more help, mainly food. It helps me to be less stressed so I can focus on other things.”
While the future is uncertain, those involved in addressing food insecurity have a larger vision for the next growing season and beyond.
“I envision a society where ... the wealthier, more able people fund the farm’s ability to feed those who are least able to afford it,” said Noltnerwyss. “Kind of like a sliding scale concept, where if you can afford this, donate so that people who can pay zero or can only pay $50 for a summer’s worth of vegetables can afford it, too.”
“It’s one thing to feed people, but we can’t just say it’s OK to feed them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and canned goods,” she said. “People deserve healthy fresh foods. Everybody does.”
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