WestCare Wisconsin

When Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued the state’s safer-at-home order back in March,

WestCare Wisconsin, like many organizations, was faced with a quandary: How could it continue to provide its essential services to the community amid the outbreak of an unprecedented public health crisis?

At the time, the organization had 1,000 pounds of food sitting in its freezer, ready to be distributed to area families through its Everything and Then Some Food Pantry. While it closed its physical office, the agency knew it had to continue food distribution. 

“We had to keep evolving as (the pandemic) evolved,” said Travis Landry, WestCare’s regional vice president of operations.

Thanks to a $50,000 MKE Responds Fund grant, that evolution included moving its food distribution outdoors and expanding into a mobile emergency food pantry.

“We knew we wouldn’t have closed down, but without help from the Foundation, we wouldn’t have been able to help as many families,” Landry said. 

WestCare launched the E.A.T.S. food pantry in 2018 out of its Harambee Community Involvement Center in Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood. In January, thanks to a $40,000 grant from the Foundation’s Basic Needs Fund, the agency was able to expand operations by hiring a full-time staff member. Up until then it had been operating the pantry twice a month through the help of volunteers. Seventy five families came to the pantry, which operated much like a grocery store where patrons could shop for the items that they needed.

In March, WestCare started operating the pantry once a week on Wednesdays and provided prepared food boxes to individuals. Now it serves more than 300 families each week.

On pantry days, with help from area youth, WestCare prepares and delivers premade boxes of food to neighborhood churches, foster parents resource centers and a number of day care providers that can then be distributed to families and older adults who are unable to leave their homes. Seventeen hundred people were served in May and more than 2,200 were served in June. 

Staff also grill hundreds of pounds of fresh hamburgers and sausages on pantry days, providing a hot meal that has made a huge difference for some families who might not have a stove or refrigerator, Landry said. 

WestCare’s main goal is to fill in the gaps for those in the neighborhood who don’t have access to fresh food. However, the agency has served individuals from outside Milwaukee. Landry said the demographics have changed over time, noting that more older residents recently have taken advantage of the food pantry, particularly those who are taking care of their grandchildren.  

Not only is WestCare addressing food insecurity, thanks to partnerships with Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin and other providers, it also is addressing other essential needs. It provides masks, gloves and information on how to stay safe during the public health crisis. Families also receive donated baby supplies, cleaning supplies, toiletries and even job resources.

“We must continue to do everything we can to prevent a hunger crisis in Milwaukee,” Landry said. “We believe that no one should be food insecure in our great city on a great lake.”

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