Feeding La Crosse

By Dave Dolle

The Hunger Task Force of La Crosse distributes thousands of pounds of food every day to local food pantries and meal programs but has had to surmount new challenges to continue safely supplying those resources in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic.

“We are distributing over 200,000 pounds of food monthly, an average of 50,000 pounds per week and 10,000 pounds per day,” said Hunger Task Force executive director Shelly Fortner. “Due to lockdowns or program closings, we have had to find new and creative ways to get food to people, a number of drive-by food distributions among them.”

In 2018, 9,860 people or 8.4% of the La Crosse County population were classified as food insecure and of that total 27% were ineligible for FoodShare benefits (also know as SNAP, or food stamps), according to an estimate from Feeding America. The food insecurity rate was higher in some neighboring rural counties (9.9% in Vernon County and 9.4% in Monroe County).

The figures come from long before covid-19 devastated the economy, sending unemployment soaring. The since-expired $600 a week boost to unemployment benefits, and $1,200 stimulus checks included in federal relief bills, did keep many families afloat during the crisis. But delays and barriers to accessing benefits left many in difficulty and, as winter approaches, the reduction in unemployment benefits is likely to lead to more pain for those who remain out of work. Food pantries in La Crosse have already seen increases in demand in some areas.

“The increase has been in the number of new households seeking service for the first time ever and people who haven’t needed our services in years,” said Erin Waldhart, Executive Director of WAFER food pantry. “There has also been an increase in the number of people requesting and receiving more than one complete food package per month.”

Some households in La Crosse have benefited from an increase in FoodShare benefits, which was enabled by Governor Tony Evers’s public health emergency declaration in response to the pandemic. Fortner underlined the importance of the program.

“The best way to serve families is to make sure they sign up for programs they are eligible for, like FoodShare,” she said.

Local food pantries and banks have been dealing with a lack of volunteers, with some understandably worried about the risk of catching covid. The work can also be physically demanding.

“We typically have 5-10 in our warehouse daily and 25-35 at the Kane Street Community Garden daily,” Fortner said. “Right now we have 1-2 in our warehouse and about 10 at the garden. We specifically need volunteers for driving our truck for pick-ups and deliveries and for the garden.”

Another issue Fortner highlighted was what she sees as a lack of coordination among food pantries. Food Banks like the one operated by Hunger Task Force act as a hub that distributes food to pantries and other programs.

“Food pantries in the La Crosse area for the most part don’t share information with each other,” Fortner said. “Most programs seem to be working in a vacuum, rarely working together to ensure that all areas are covered and that they are not serving each other’s clients. This leads to a lot of duplication. Pantries should serve their immediate area only and not areas where there is already an established program.”  

With winter fast approaching, there are some concerns about whether there will be adequate supply to pantries to meet demand. But the Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP, which is run under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is helping to ensure there is a robust supply of food locally.

“The more you serve, the more you need, the more you ask for,” Fortner said. “Which also leads to the resources question. How long, with everyone asking for funding (some for the same clients), until our resources run out?”

Email questions to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com. Top image: Kareem Weekes at work with a rider pallet jack and rescued carrots at City Harvest’s food recycling facility in Long Island City, New York. USDA/public domain.

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