Food pantry provides sustenance and sparks ‘a feeling of belonging’

July 19, 2013
by Eric Oliver

Alicia Ellis, director of Central City Churches, stands in front of boxes of packaged food waiting to be sorted and distributed to needy families. (Photo by Eric Oliver)

For Alicia Ellis, every day starts with a small ritual. She says “good morning” and “thank you” to the volunteers who work at Central City Churches Outreach Ministry.

The volunteers help staff a food pantry and soup kitchen on the lower level of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, 3022 W. Wisconsin Ave. The food pantry was started in the 1970s by eight congregations located along Wisconsin Avenue, and Ellis has been the director since 2001.

Ellis pointed out that volunteers are often underappreciated, which is why she thanks them every day. “People are giving up their time from their heart,” she said.

The pantry serves an average of 1,600 people a month, according to Ellis. Anyone who needs it can pick up a bag of food at the church one time. However only people who live in ZIP codes 53205, 53208, 53210 and 53233 can come regularly. Volunteers point people from other ZIP codes to food pantries in their neighborhoods.

A volunteer packs bags of food for distribution (Photo by Eric Oliver)

Ellis said she knows that there is no magic checkbook that the pantry can use to obtain resources for people in need, but during her tenure at the food pantry she has seen increasing generosity from the parishes that make up Central City Churches.

“Each congregation pledges so much a year to donate towards the ministry,” Ellis said. “We write grant (proposals) for food and financial assistance and equipment, but mostly the donations are what keep us going.”

Clients sometimes come back to volunteer at the food pantry because their lives have progressed and they want to repay the good will they received there, Ellis said.

One woman, a former client, was working full time and although she no longer lived nearby, she came back to share what she was doing and how much the ministry meant to her, Ellis recalled.

Emily Spanjers, a volunteer through Lutheran Volunteer Corp, said that she was excited when she started working at the food pantry about a year ago because it helps improve people’s lives. The ministry invites resource providers to the pantry, as a convenience for clients. For example, a representative of a free government cell phone service passes out mobile phones. The Milwaukee County Health Department helps people apply for BadgerCare.

“We are trying very hard, but sometimes,” said Spanjers, “it does not seem like we are making a difference, but we have to trust that we are.”

Ellis said the most difficult part for volunteers is when they are unable to provide assistance to people who need it.

“To see a mother come in … and she has experienced domestic violence, but we called all the resources and there are no beds, those are the hard parts,” Ellis commented.

At the end of the day though, there is no other place she would want to work.

Jacqueline Schram, a governmental and community affairs associate at Marquette University who has worked with Central City Churches, said a major reason the pantry is successful is that Ellis and her staff are so caring and exuberant.

“The pantry is a critical arm of support for sustenance and for sparking a feeling of belonging in the community,” Schram added.

Spanjers agreed that the program is very important for the neighborhood because it makes healthy food more accessible, and it provides a safe space for people to gather.

“I think that we are trying to do really good work, but sometimes it is very hard with the funds that we have and the way that things are in the world,” Spanjers said.”

Despite their hardships, each visitor can expect a warm greeting and something to eat. “Everyone is welcome,” Ellis said.

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