Kinship springs from 40-year-old Milwaukee food pantry
Riverwest Food Pantry is one of the long-standing programs that shares sustenance with folks in Milwaukee at fragile times of their lives, reaching 13,000 shoppers a year.
Recently on the eve of Earth Day, 400 people gathered at Turner Hall to celebrate the pantry's rich history and what lies ahead.
Excitement filled the air as several individuals gathered their courage, stepped up to a microphone and shared their connection to Riverwest Food Pantry, including Lona Owens.
"Prior to Riverwest Food Pantry, I had experience homeless and I struggled with severe depression and agoraphobia, that’s basically a fear of being outside of your home. So as you can imagine, it was really a struggle to be homeless and not have a safe place to be," Owens shared.
After 18 months of homelessness, Owens said, “I was finally able to secure stable housing, but I was still in need of food.”
Then someone suggested Riverwest Food Pantry to her. "I didn’t really have great expectations, I figured I’d go receive a bag of food, be grateful and go home. But that wasn’t the case, something was different. From the moment I walked in, I felt welcomed, I felt heard and I felt seen," she said.
Owens kept coming back, became a volunteer and with encouragement from those around her, she went back school. "And for the past two years, I’ve been attending MATC, fulfilling my general ed requirements,” she said.
Owens told the receptive crowd she’d just been accepted to UW-Milwaukee. “I plan on earning a degree in social work. I want to be a social worker to make a difference in people’s lives that are experiencing homelessness," she shared.
The evening culminated with the announcement that the 40-year-old institution is taking on a new name — Kinship Community Food Center.
Executive director Vincent Noth explained why: “Food pantry just no longer properly describes what we do, in fact, when you survey the community, when you talk to them, you ask, ‘Why do you come here?’, the number one answer is the feeling of family, my sense of community here, my sense of belonging here. The second is the awesome food and the way you guys do the food.”
You see what Noth is talking about on a recent Saturday morning. Teme, that’s short for Temesgen Wessel, greets me inside what originally was a parochial school basement on E. Clarke Street.
"I’m on Team Stride, which is walking with the people who come to shop here. Our first job is to build relationship and kind of be there to listen and then if they need help finding housing, finding bedding, finding a phone, that’s what we do,” he says.
Wessel signed on for a summer of service, that was last summer, but decided to stay on a bit longer before returning to school in Minnesota. “School can wait. This is way more important because it’s a building block for where I want to be in the future,” he says.
The main hall is bursting with shoppers — many sit and chat with volunteers sharing a hot breakfast. Volunteer and board chair Ellen Bartel calls it blessed chaos. “And from the very beginning I felt that I was treated with more kindness and civility in these walls than I encountered in the broader world. Everyone has something to give and everyone has something to receive, and that’s what I’ve found in my own experience here. It’s transformative,” she says.
Bartel says she hadn’t understood the face of hunger and poverty in Milwaukee. "Most of the people who shop here are employed but they don’t have enough to provide for all of the basic needs of their household, so we help them with food,” she explains.
The organization helps with other needs too. Bartel says last year the group helped 47 families facing eviction find housing.
Volunteers begin rolling out the market to the middle of the room, five-shelved units on wheels. Shoppers can choose from canned soups, broths and stews to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Across the room, Sundus Geal helps her mom, Halimo, demo and serve up homemade sambusas, savory pockets of vegetables with shoppers’ choice of chicken or beef.
Geal, an 8th grader, says they love being here. "I’s just really special to me because there’s not really kindness in the world, so coming here and this kindness, it’s just really nice,” she says.
As spring turns to summer, more and more of the food served by guest chefs and produce shoppers pluck off the market shelves will be grown in and harvested from 11 hoop houses a few miles to the northwest.
This is the urban farm’s seven season and volunteer Anna Metscher has been here for all of them. “I think people are surprised when they come out here. The scale of what we’re doing out here is a little bigger than a community garden. So to understand how much food we’re producing out here — I can say 10,000 pounds last year, but it doesn’t really make sense until you come here and see all the different crops and how much food really comes out of this little lot,” she explains.
Metscher was part of the crowd that gathered for the pantry’s transition to Kinship Community Food Center. “I think that the name change is just a very real way to show the wholeness and the entirety of what we do with building community and what all the people that volunteer and all the shoppers. It’s bigger than any one of us," she says.
The group hopes to be part of a citywide effort to begin to fill what it calls a deeper hunger for connection.
Note: Audio from April 22 event courtesy of DV Productions.
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