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Food Drives Hit High Gear

There seems to be a heightened sense of need and giving regarding food collection at this time of year.

Two women who have been fighting hunger here for decades say the need is greater than ever.

Bonnie Bellehumeur has led Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin since 1980. Its name used to be Second Harvesters.

“I can tell you that when I first started, we were distributing about five to seven million pounds of food every year, now our distribution is 20 million pounds and we, in the last two years, saw a 31 percent increase in our distribution which means the demand continues unabated,” Bellehumeur says.

“The face of hunger” has also changed, she adds.

“Where it used to be the homeless individuals years ago, it’s now really individuals who are mainstream, before middle income individuals, who have had something bad happen to them on the job scene. It’s also people living in the suburbs. They’re finding it harder and harder living the American dream, having that home, and then guess what, they maybe are downsized in their job. So, they’re finding that’s difficult as well. It’s many more families than ever before and we are now seeing more elderly because they are on fixed income and we know Social Security has not increased, and kept up, so they are struggling to get by with less money every month, every year,” Bellehumeur says.

Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin places food collection boxes in office buildings and other locations throughout the metro area.

Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin supplies 1,000 pantries and other groups that feed people. In addition to food drives, the agency gleans tons of unsold groceries from supermarkets, including perishable goods that have reached their expiration date. It also buys semis full of “seconds” –less than perfectly packaged foods.

The Hunger Task Force places barrels in grocery stores, hoping shoppers deposit a few items. Sherrie Tussler is executive director.

She says donations pour in and go out quickly during the holidays, but the greatest need for food here occurs in late summer.

“Childhood hunger is at its heaviest during the month of August because the schools are closed and many recreation programs are closed. Soup kitchens have a ridiculous number of children going there looking for a nightly meal. We work with the Milwaukee Public Schools and the Boys and Girls Clubs along with the federal government to make sure that the summer food service program is providing both breakfast and lunch. Then, Kohl’s Department stores foots the bill for supper and so August is the toughest month of all,” Tussler says.

She echoes Bellehumeur’s observation – that the need for emergency food has continued to grow.

“We were established by a group of volunteers, dieticians and nutritionists, in 1974 in order to get breakfast into the Milwaukee Public Schools. We were called “The Hunger Task Force” by the community. That was not a name that we initially adopted, we were the “Concerned Citizens for School Breakfast.” And so, we are a task force and I’m hoping that it ends.  I think about the fact that Wisconsin produces enough food to feed all of its citizens and citizens of other countries, and I ask myself why one in four children in Milwaukee is going hungry. Then I say it is a public policy issue, it’s not an access issue that we don’t have enough food,” Tussler says.

Tussler says public policy decisions that would help include boosting the minimum wage and restoring cuts in federal food stamp programs.