Every Saturday morning, hundreds of people wait in line for the doors to open at the Riverwest Food Pantry. It’s located in the basement of St. Casimir’s Church in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood.
Once inside, they mingle for a few minutes, then Vincent Noth calls the group into prayer. He is the director of the operation.
After the prayer, each visitor grabs a couple grocery bags and walks from room to room. In each, there is food, and the people load their bags with fresh produce and canned goods.
Noth says it’s grown from one simple pantry into a network. “We partner with Hunger Task Force and six churches in the area and through all that we distribute about 240,000 pounds of food a year to about 12,000 people,” he explains.
Noth began his work here as a volunteer 15 years ago.
He says since then, the number of people in need has skyrocketed. “There was a huge increase between 2005 and 2011 at food pantries in Milwaukee because of the recession and even though the economy has been steadily growing since 2011 out of the recession, it hasn’t impacted the lowest income parts of our society especially in Milwaukee County. The size of those who are food insecure almost doubled,” Noth says.
Noth points to several reasons for the great need for emergency food in Milwaukee. He says one of them is the city’s eviction crisis.
According to Noth, clients reside not only in Riverwest, but also come from the nearby Harambee neighborhood, as well as from downtown. He describes many who come through the doors of the pantry as working class families.
“The vast majority of people who shop at our pantries work, but their wages don’t have that wage power to pull them up out of poverty. Over 75 percent of the families of four live below the poverty line, which is $24,000 a year," Noth says. "Many of them are from single households, single parents and many are also working two jobs. You do the math and between paying their rent and their insurance and it’s only taking them halfway through the month."
Noth says it’s easy to get discouraged, seeing so many faces each week needing the pantry. But, he says he gets his inspiration to keep at it from the city’s many generous people.
One of those generous people include comedian Jim Gaffigan, who volunteered at the pantry on Tuesday, December 27 and is donating the proceeds from one of his Milwaukee New Year's Eve comedy shows to the organization.
“What gives me hope is when I see a low income mom come here and then come back and say, I have Fridays off and I want to sort produce and I want to give back," Noth says. "What gives me hope is seeing individual lives change, people who are living in public housing, many are semi- or partially-disabled and now all of a sudden they are running part of our program. What gives me lasting hope is the belief that the City of Milwaukee does have a bright future."
He adds, "We’ve had a rough couple of decades here as the economy has drastically changed and segregation has hit our city so hard. But, being here gives me hope because we are integrated here. We’re working together so for me, this is a snapshot of what our city could be if we all kind of band together."