Food insecurity is pervasive, even in Northeast Wisconsin. Helping people out of it is the goal behind the F.R.E.S.H. Project, a nonprofit organization in Shawano County.
“We want people to become self-sustainable,” says the group’s executive director, Barbara Mendoza. “That’s the biggest thing.”
The F.R.E.S.H. Project — its name is an acronym for fresh, resources, education, sustainability and health — is made up of native nations, county government, community organizations, farmers and faith groups. The program’s success resulted in a $10,000 grant from Lumberjack Resource Conservation in Rhinelander, which will allow the organization to extend its programs into neighboring Menominee County.
Five years ago, a regional survey found that more than one-third of Shawano County residents faced food insecurity. In addition, childhood poverty rates for the county have been consistently higher than the state average. Those two factors led to the program’s launch, Mendoza says.
The United Presbyterian Church in Shawano, which received a three-year grant totaling $263,283 from the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region, started the F.R.E.S.H. Project. Mendoza says the organization is focused on understanding community challenges, increasing knowledge of healthy and sustainable food systems, and developing solutions to tackle the issues of food insecurity.
“The biggest challenge was getting fresh produce,” says Mendoza, a Gresham native who previously worked with food pantries and Feeding America in Virginia but decided to move home after learning about the F.R.E.S.H. Project.
While food pantries exist to provide shelf-stable staples, there was still a dearth of fresh food available. Mendoza thought, “What if we had our own garden?”
The group started a garden in Gresham, which prompted Red River resident and retired nurse Sue Hennigan to get involved.
“There are people who are not able to afford food or go out and get it easily,” she says. “We have the ability to grow food quite easily and in abundance. It’s kind of a win-win.”
Hennigan now maintains a garden for the project. “I gained a lot for myself; it makes me feel like I have a purpose.”
At the gardens, volunteers plant, harvest and offer the produce to the community at about 18 Share the Bounty tables throughout the county. Local farmers can share their produce as well.
In 2018, the F.R.E.S.H. Project started a pilot program offering Community Supported Agriculture boxes, working with local farmers to provide fresh vegetables and fruits, eggs and meats, plus syrup and honey. It also started a mobile market available in food desert areas. With a rented van, the group provides produce, cooking demonstrations, recipes and educational information.
When the pandemic halted many in-person opportunities, the F.R.E.S.H. Project shifted, Mendoza says. “We were able to reallocate our educational programs into getting food to the people,” she says, noting that the group has done online programs as well as sending food packages home with students.
“We hear families say they’re so grateful for the things that we do for them,” says Mendoza, who with her husband also founded a food pantry in Gresham — named Flo-ing with Kindness after her late mother.
While individuals facing food insecurity are everywhere, Hennigan calls them “the forgotten people.”
Mendoza agrees. “If it’s not in their backyard, (people) don’t see it. They don’t understand the extent (of need).”
That’s why the F.R.E.S.H. Project is more than just a retirement project for Mendoza, Hennigan and the other volunteers.
“Knowing that we’re helping people, taking care of people that really need it, it’s a very satisfying feeling,” Mendoza says.