Need for food help up in Marathon County
USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin’s Stock the Shelves campaign encourages readers to help fight hunger locally through Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin.
Green Bay Press-Gazette
WAUSAU – People don’t often think about food insecurity until it hits home. For many individuals and families in Marathon County the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact on the state and country has forced them to reach out for assistance.
Even as the unemployment rate declines in the county, food pantry use is up, said Ben Lee, community impact director at United Way of Marathon County.
“It’s been a 200% response for the entirety of the pandemic,” Lee said. “It’s nonstop.”
Through the Marathon County Hunger Coalition’s food box program — in partnership with The Neighbors’ Place and the U.S. Department of Agriculture — and meal pick-ups for school-aged children, United Way has served over 25,000 people in the community just through pandemic-response programming.
And the need for assistance doesn’t seem likely to slow down anytime soon, Lee said.
“Food insecurity can sometimes be a black hole,” Lee said. “It’s never-ending. And that work, as far as I can tell, is going to continue for some time.”
State health officials say the COVID-19 crisis is going to get worse before it improves. As of Wednesday afternoon, Marathon County reported 2,096 positive cases of COVID-19 and 23 deaths since the pandemic began. The Marathon County Health Department told residents Sept. 21 that it no longer was able to keep up with contact tracing in a timely manner as cases grew, and local hospitals reported this week they were close to reaching capacity for COVID-designated beds.
In response to the recent surge in cases, the Hunger Coalition of Marathon County is extending some of its programs and will deliver food to assisted living facilities as long as possible, Lee said.
Lee said between now and February, the Hunger Coalition has a steady supply of food available. The challenge, he said, is making sure it gets to the people who need it most.
“One thing the pandemic has laid bare is the people who were just doing OK, they didn’t have a safety net,” said Donna Ambrose, executive director of The Neighbors’ Place, the largest food pantry in the region. “The amount of people coming here who have never been here before keeps rising.”
Ambrose said the food pantry has “changed the rules” to adapt to the current situation. The pantry doesn’t limit incomes or ask many questions. Now, they only ask two: whether a person or family has been to the pantry before, and how many people live in the household.
Food insecurity can bring on a host of problems in addition to hunger, including stress. Part of the reason for the changes at The Neighbors’ Place, Ambrose said, is because things are already stressful enough.
“People shouldn’t have to also worry about their basic needs,” she said. “We’re just trying to change the narrative a little bit.”
Even with the increased need, the community has been quick to respond with an outpouring of support, said Jeff Sargent, executive director of United Way of Marathon County. Not only has United Way had over a hundred local volunteers, but the local government, school districts and Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg have all offered assistance.
“I’ve had a better outpouring of community support than when we weren’t in a pandemic,” Lee said.
While Lee suggested more government funding could relieve some stress on food assistance programs, Sargent said the biggest challenge is education and helping people understand the reality of food insecurity in central Wisconsin.
“Nobody likes the idea of hunger, but it’s a real thing,” he said. “There’s a lot of things people can do, just caring about their fellow human beings. It doesn’t sound challenging but certainly in times of polarization, it can be.”
As for how things will proceed in the spring, Lee said it depends on a few variables.
Services like the USDA food boxes are federally funded, and a change in administration could dictate whether or not it’s continued. A vaccine could help normalize some of the pandemic’s chaos.
Mainly, it comes down to fundraising.
Stock the Shelves campaign
To assist local hunger relief efforts, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin has launched its annual Stock the Shelves campaign and is encouraging readers to donate money to help fight hunger in their communities.
For Hunger Awareness Month, from Oct. 1-31, donations from newspaper readers and support from community partners, like Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin, keep regional food banks and local pantries packed with food. Since 2010, Stock the Shelves has raised $5 million for food pantries across the state.
“Every year we’ve benefited from Stock the Shelves,” said First Presbyterian Food Pantry coordinator Chuck Schlitz. “Prices have gone up (with) the COVID situation. The cost of operation has gone up, and we see that in the pantry as well.”
The First Presbyterian Food Pantry isn’t the only local food pantry to rely on Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin. The regional food bank makes shipments to four Merrill food pantries (Merrill Bible Church, the Community Food Pantry of Merrill, Trinity Open Heart Food Pantry and His Hands Extended Food Pantry); three others in Wausau (The Neighbors’ Place, The Salvation Army and Blessings That Give Hope); one in Mosinee (Community Center of Hope); and one in Schofield (Community Action Partnership Food Pantry).
Readers can steer their dollars to specific local communities in the comment area of electronic donations or on checks made payable to: Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin, ATTN: Stock The Shelves, 2911 W. Evergreen Drive, Appleton, WI 54913.
Donors will be listed in a thank you ad that will appear in Thanksgiving editions of USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin newspapers.
With no real end to the pandemic in sight, Lee said the United Way of Marathon County is prepared to keep serving the community.
“While a sense of normalcy may return in 2021, we know that it takes longer than a week or month to get back on track with your life,” he said. “I don’t think our work ends when this pandemic is over.”
RELATED: Stock The Shelves: How a yearly fundraiser aids food pantries such as The Neighbors’ Place
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