Just a seed of an idea can grow into a way to help hundreds of thousands of people when they need it most. † It started with the late Milton J. Huber, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor, who approached the Rotary Club of Milwaukee with an idea to collect produce with minor blemishes and excess crops for delivery to food pantries. † An initial donation of 600 pounds of apples in 1982 germinated by 2017 into a way to distribute 25.6 million pounds of food to 400,000 people in 36 counties annually in eastern Wisconsin. † With food banks in Milwaukee and Appleton — home to a 40,000-square-foot distribution center along Interstate 41, opened in 2015 — Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin works to solve hunger in the region by collecting and distributing healthy food to the hungry. The organization works with 600 food pantries, meal programs and emergency shelters throughout the state, 200 of them in Northeast Wisconsin.
“Food pantries are the ones that are on the front lines in serving individuals in need,” says Patti Habeck, president of Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin. “Our job, and our role, is to support the work of the food pantries.”
But Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin has aims beyond those immediate needs, taking a close look at the root causes of hunger and food insecurity — why people need help in the first place — and working with multiple partners to find innovative ways to address those issues.
Most people going about their daily lives in Northeast Wisconsin might not notice hunger is a problem. But about one in seven people in the region faces food insecurity, which is a measure of how well people can provide for themselves and their families on a consistent basis, Habeck says.
“The realities are that in Northeast Wisconsin, a lot of that stays hidden,” Habeck says. “There’s a lot of pride up here. There’s a lot of difficulty in asking for help.”
The Great Recession, which hit about 2008, took a toll on the ability of many Northeast Wisconsin families to keep food on the table. Many food pantries struggled as well. People who had been just making it were unable to sustain themselves.
“All that happened at a time when donations were going down because the markets and everything had fallen,” Habeck says. “It wasn’t just something that was happening at one level, and recovery has been so uneven.”
The statistics for children are higher than for the population at large, with one in five facing food insecurity. “The hard part is that happens a lot in pockets — we work with some schools in Green Bay that have 90 percent food insecurity,” Habeck says.
Fighting food insecurity is tricky because of the multiple factors that lead to it.
“What we’re trying to look at is what are the social conditions that lead to hunger? What are the environmental factors that lead to poverty?” says Alex Tyink, who was Feeding America’s director of programs until April. “We see poverty as a huge driver of food insecurity.”
Nutrition is directly linked to mental and physical health, for example, and when people have strong mental and physical health, they’re able to work and lead a healthier lifestyle, Tyink says. Education — not just on financial literacy — but overall, is another key element.
“So, the national conversation right now is really focusing on financial resilience and building financial self-sufficiency,” Tyink says. “We’re doing a lot of research right now to figure out what our communities really need and want.”
How Feeding America helps
Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin essentially acts as a hub of distribution for food pantries and other organizations, such as schools. It obtains food from multiple sources, including traditional food drives for non-perishables. But it also works with 700 food manufacturers, retail stores, wholesalers, brokers and growers, which donate 22 million pounds of food each year toward the 30 million or so that is distributed. Feeding America also purchases some food to fill in certain gaps such as protein.
“We intentionally chose to start sourcing healthy food, because we needed more of it, and we wanted to move that needle pretty quickly,” Habeck says. “We wanted to give people meals that will make them healthy and stronger, and that’s really important to us.”
It was a big change, one that took a shift in thinking about distribution as well as logistics and capacity, and it became a part of the organization’s new strategic plan adopted several years ago. It was a way to move deeper into addressing food insecurity as well as to meet demand — pantries had been seeking healthier foods.
“It’s a myth that the end users are all looking for processed, salty foods,” Habeck says. “What they’re asking for and what they want largely is healthy, fresh food that they can provide for their families because they know how important it is.”
Because Feeding America is such a large organization, it takes a bit of creative thought to shift in a new direction, she says. “That’s why we’ve invested in both the research of what are we going to do to solve hunger and the innovation of how do we do this on a mass scale?”
The organization has created partnerships on a local, regional and national scale to obtain nutritious food, and it has created several innovations to get more produce into the hands of people who need it.
Its FarmLink program, which began as an online marketplace to connect farmers with local institutions such as schools that seek fresh produce, has increased the availability of fresh food throughout the food bank network, Tyink says.
“The closer to the farmer we can be when sourcing produce, the better for the person who ends up eating that food,” Tyink says. “They will end up with a more nutritious product with a longer shelf life.”
The project is also a way to minimize waste at the food bank and create opportunities for education about the benefits and source of fresh food, he says.
“The point is, can we support the local food system better so farmers are doing what they do, just farm?” Habeck says. “And then we create an excess in the system because they have more customers, meaning that we will get more donated fresh produce.”
Feeding America also works directly with producers to donate a portion of their harvest to rural areas. Its Direct Connect program allows pantries to pick up food directly from distributors, giving more life to fresh products that would otherwise need to travel first to the distribution center. It shares transportation costs with regional food banks for non-local items such as cantaloupes.
Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin also offers some direct services such as mobile food pantries or ways to help local food pantries increase their own capacity to serve the community by adding a freezer or even a truck, she says.
“Our preference is that we work collectively with the food pantries so that the food pantries can do the direct services,” Habeck says.
“Everybody eats — it’s the great unifier,” Tyink says. “There’s an opportunity to engage communities at a systemic level with food and to work on these bigger issues from the bottom up.”
Three years ago, Feeding America changed its mission statement from “to serve the hungry” — “which really just means food in, food out,” Habeck says, to “together we can solve hunger,” shifting its focus to the causes of food insecurity.
The idea is to work collaboratively with community partners to create a strong, interconnected system to get food to people who need it. Additionally, there is an intentional shift toward work with other partners, such as organizations addressing poverty issues, she says.
“Pantries believe that their job is to serve people, and that is really important because we have to keep doing that,” Habeck says. “But there is also an increasing movement toward what are we going to do about this? How do we make it better for people and not keep having the same problem re-emerge?”
Bill Bohn, chairman of the Feeding America board, says the organization is working on ways to continue to be more in tune with the needs and challenges of its members as well as to collaborate on next steps.
Adding fresh food has been an evolving, multifaceted effort including innovations like the hydroponic growing machines created by Tyink and his company Fork Farms (see sidebar on page 25). The organization has made considerable progress in getting fresh produce and proteins to food pantries and wants to continue to work with its partners to build on the quantity of food as well as nutrition, Bohn says.
“We are by definition completely dependent upon and focused on strong collaborations with our distribution partners,” Bohn says. “So we’re spending a lot of time trying to figure out not just how do we get more food but the right food to the right places the right way.”
Focusing on food insecurity helps reach populations where nutrition has particularly significant health impacts, including young children, where food quality impacts learning and development, and the elderly, where nutrition impacts quality of life, Bohn says.
“When you look at some of the specific areas where there’s pockets of demand and you can clearly see a direct connection to the nutrition, it starts to be pretty clear where you need to spend your energy,” Bohn says.
The Oshkosh Area Food Pantry is using one of Tyink’s hydroponic growing machines, which has helped it produce lettuce and engage clients in gardening, says Terri Green, executive director of the pantry. “We have a nutrition committee that’s engaged around the growing machine and helping folks understand that you can container-grow a lot of your food.”
The pantry receives about 45 percent of its food from Feeding America at 19 cents a pound (97 percent of which goes back into program delivery costs at Feeding America), allowing the organization to operate more efficiently and effectively.
“Without them, we would either be offering less food to people in crisis, or we would be using a lot more res
ources to try to find the food,” Green says. “We feed about 2,000 households every month, and 19 cents a pound is just a huge relief. When you think about every dollar that’s donated, we can get about 5 pounds of food.”
The Oshkosh pantry also is part of the Direct Connect program, picking up food directly from Walmart, Target and Aldi, and the food theypick up on Feeding America’s behalf is given to the pantry at no cost.
“We work together on policies within each other’s organizations — how can we make the flow better, better continuity, better ordering system,” Green says. “There really isn’t much that we have not attacked together as partners, and that just makes everything a lot easier to work with.”
Habeck, who originally intended to be a dentist, became involved in leadership activities while at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and ended up entering the nonprofit field. She formerly served as director of education at education at The Building For Kids Children’s Museum in Appleton and led its capital campaign to renovate the museum.
Habeck later worked for the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region, where she oversaw the needs of the region’s rural communities. In 2011, she moved to Feeding America, tapping into her experience to raise the funds for the new distribution center.
“That was only a side piece,” she says. “That was what Feeding America needed to do, but what the community needed to do was establish Feeding America as a friend and a partner and an organization that’s important to the community.”
Feeding America recently developed a partnership with Oshkosh Corp., connecting about 18 months ago through Oshkosh’s Feed the Body, Feed the Soul program, which features music and raises money for Feeding America to purchase rice for Northeast Wisconsin for a year.
Oshkosh Corp., with 900 community volunteers, packed more than 250,000 pounds of bulk rice into 2-pound bags, says Jodie Larsen, vice president of community engagement for the company, which has partnered with the organization on several projects to collect food.
“Part of our mission at Oshkosh Corp. is really supporting basic needs,” Larsen says. “I think Patti is a very strategic partner, and that’s what’s fun about working with Patti is she’s always thinking about the next great idea.”
Necessity inspires innovation
Inspiration can come from the most interesting sources.
For Alex Tyink, a native of Northeast Wisconsin who originally trained for a career in opera, it all began when he was living in New York, where he first saw a rooftop garden featuring hydroponically grown food. That vision prompted Tyink to change his career and begin to develop his own hydroponic technology.
Feeding America would subsequently hire Tyink for his expertise in food systems and agriculture technology. He is the founder of Menasha-based Fork Farms, where he created a vertical hydroponic grow machine for leafy greens, which is now being used by some of Feeding America’s partner pantries and schools.
“It’s going to take that kind of thought to change things at the scale that we are, with 36 counties,” Patti Habeck, president of Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin, says of the organization’s service area.
Tyink left Feeding America in April to tend to his startup full-time, but remains connected with the nonprofit. Tyink’s grow machines can fit in a corner of a room and take just an hour or less per week to maintain, providing fresh leafy greens in 21 to 28 days. Fork Farms has about 48 grow machines in the community, including about 17 for Feeding America.
“If we can grow food right on site, we don’t even have to worry about transportation, and the pantry knows that they don’t have to worry about refrigeration,” Habeck says. “They can harvest it in the morning and give it out as fresh as possible, and it has the maximum nutrients.”
When these machines are placed in low-income schools, not only do they provide fresh food for the kids, but they teach them about gardening and farming. The kids take home food they grew themselves, making them more excited about eating it and sharing it with their families.
“It changes behavior because it’s high dignity — they grew it, it’s theirs, they own it, and there is this deep connection that happens when you put your own sweat equity into something,” Tyink says. “You gain a new connection with that, and that’s what we’re seeing.”
Tyink says the grow machines are designed to shorten the supply chain.
“What if the food pantry or the school becomes the farmer? That’s the idea — we want them producing food at a large enough scale where they’re making a significant nutritional difference,” Tyink says.