'A Lot Of New Faces': Riverwest Food Pantry Says The Need For Food Has Grown In The Past Year
The Riverwest Food Pantry has been helping Milwaukeeans meet their food needs since 1979.
Since the organization began, the goal has not only been to provide food but to help bring people together and build a stronger community. As the COVID-19 pandemic has made gathering in communal spaces unsafe and forced more people to worry about where their next meal is coming from, Riverwest Food Pantry has had to adapt.
Vincent Noth, executive director of the pantry, says the biggest change has been moving away from their pre-pandemic model that allow recipients to pick and choose every item of food.
“The big difference is that everything was 100% shopper choice in our old model when people could go in. There was nothing that you would be taking home that you didn’t personally choose off the shelf,” he says.
This guaranteed people wouldn't throw away food due to dietary restrictions or any other reason. Noth says they experimented with socially distanced ways of selecting food. But as the pandemic progressed, the need for food grew, and with volunteers sheltering at home, so they moved to pre-portioned bags of food.
“We normally serve about 13,000 shoppers in a year, like 13,000 visits to the pantry and in 2020 it was almost 20,000,” he notes.
It wasn’t just people needing more food, Noth says, but people who had never thought they’d need to use the pantry.
“It was a lot of new faces and a lot of people that never thought they would ever, you know, need a food pantry — and that was very challenging and powerful,” he says.
Noth says when people come to the pantry, workers make an effort to ask about other aspects of their financial situation like rent or utilities and help connect those in need with additional resources. He says many times when he would ask those questions, people would break down crying because before the pandemic, they thought of themselves as financially stable.
The pantry has also seen an increase in small online donations, which Noth attributes to many people becoming more aware of food insecurity, especially when so many grocery aisles went empty at the beginning of the pandemic.
“I don’t think most of us, most Americans, until you know March and April of 2020 ever thought about like,
'Will I have enough food?,'” he says.
As more people get vaccinated and the pandemic comes closer to an end, the Riverwest Food Pantry will continue to implement some of the changes from the past year. Noth says their online services and curbside pick-up has worked better for some people and will stick around.
“It was a very hard and challenging year but it was also a really instructive year and it was a really rewarding year because we were able to be a vital resource to so many people and be reminded, like, oh yeah, this is really important,” he says.