Helping to Defea t Hunger - WAFER Food Pantry feeds thousands in La Crosse. Here’s how.
In the United States, one out of every 10 families doesn’t have enough money to buy the groceries they need. In La Crosse, one of those people is Rose, a disabled adult; another is Stephanie, a single mom who just finished a two-year degree, but whose job doesn’t pay enough to make ends meet; still another is Robert, a senior citizen on a fixed income. This year, WAFER Food Pantry will help 4,000 La Crosse area families have enough to eat. Some of those families will visit WAFER once, while some will require monthly assistance.
25 years of helping
WAFER is celebrating 25 years of providing groceries by way of monthly food packages (three to four days’ worth of food with quantity based on family size). The pantry’s organizers first met in 1985 and opened at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in January 1986;
3,000 food packages were distributed that year. Initially, WAFER stood for West Avenue Food Emergency Resource because of St. Paul’s West Avenue location. In 2002, the pantry moved to its current Causeway Boulevard location but kept the original name and, in 2011, will distribute close to 20,000 food packages. While WAFER maintains a small half-time staff, volunteers keep the pantry running smoothly, assisting with everything from unloading trucks to helping clients.
WAFER also runs Senior Share, a program that, with the assistance of the La Crosse County Aging Unit and the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, delivers food packages to nearly 200 senior citizens.
A community effort
WAFER maintains a no-questions-asked philosophy, so anyone can request food; almost every client registered, though, is near poverty level. In order to provide all clients with enough food, WAFER relies on donations of food and funds. A remarkable 80 percent of all food is donated from individuals, organizations and businesses. Other community members offer financial support, including several special young people who asked their friends to give food or money to WAFER in lieu of birthday presents. Additionally, WAFER applies for a variety of grants and maintains a United Way agency status. Remarkably, most funds are raised locally.
Though most food is donated, WAFER also purchases food from local grocers, from a Feeding America food bank and from food vendors. Many donors wonder whether food or funds are the better gift and are usually surprised to hear that the answer is “both.” Because of the vast quantity of food necessary to provide clients with enough to eat, WAFER purchases pallets of items like soup, canned vegetables and pasta. Each month, nearly 7,000 cans of soup and 4,000 jars of peanut butter are placed in clients’ hands. However, pallets of food tend to be of a single variety, like tomato soup. When food is donated, a dozen or more types of soup find their way onto the shelves. Clients are then more likely to find food suitable to their tastes.
If you’re hungry
Getting food at WAFER is a simple process, requiring only a La Crosse County address and photo identification. Once registered, clients receive a milk coupon, then work one-onone with a volunteer to choose a variety of nonperishable items from an established list. Additionally, clients help themselves to bakery, produce and dairy items as available. WAFER food can be obtained once each month. People over age 60 have the option of completing a food preference form for home delivery. Once each month, WAFER holds a Food Fair, in which a variety of food is distributed via Channel One, a Feeding America food bank based in Rochester, Minn. Tickets for the event must be obtained in advance, though anyone whose household income is below 185 percent of poverty level is eligible, whether a WAFER client or not.
WAFER realizes simply providing food will not alleviate hunger. As research continues to link poverty and obesity, WAFER is searching for ways to increase the healthfulness of its offerings and incorporate small bits of nutritional knowledge into client visits. In an area like the Coulee Region, committed to all its residents, it’s just a matter of time before our region is a shining example of the best way to defeat hunger.
Heidi Griminger Blanke, Ph.D., has been WAFER’s executive director since 2006. She thanks everyone who makes it possible for WAFER to help one out of every 12 area households