Dane County Executive Joe Parisi announced a new proposal Nov. 15 to provide a $1.7 million boost in funding for local food pantries ahead of an expected increase in demand during the holiday season.
Parisi and several Dane County Board supervisors proposed the funding initiative at a press conference hosted at The River Food Pantry, one of the largest food assistance providers in Dane County.
As food pantries in the community prepare for the holiday season, the increase in funding will assist Second Harvest Food Bank in providing fresh, locally-sourced food to their partner organizations, including The River Food Pantry and the Bayview Foundation.
“Overall demand for The River's services is up by 33% compared to the same period from 2022, and we are only now entering what are typically our busiest weeks of the year," Rhonda Adams, executive director of The River Food Pantry, said during the press conference.
The number of people who are going hungry in Dane County has risen as living costs and inflation rise, according to Helen Osborn-Senatus, director of operations for The River Food Pantry.
The River Food Pantry is expected to help over 1,200 households provide holiday groceries and meals during the week of Thanksgiving, according to Parisi.
Second Harvest is connected to local produce providers through the county’s “Farm to Foodbank” program, which aims to distribute locally-sourced food to food pantries throughout Dane County.
The Farm to Foodbank initiative was first created during the COVID-19 pandemic as the number of Dane County families in need of food assistance grew.
According to Parisi, the Farm to Foodbank program helped Second Harvest establish relationships with local growers and producers during the pandemic, and the additional funding for the program will make up for a loss in government support that happened earlier this year.
Originally, Parisi put $6 million in the budget for the emergency food system through Second Harvest, but several agencies in Dane County amended the budget to allocate $1.5 million of the initial funding to outside community projects.
The additional $1.7 million proposed will restore funding for the Farm to Foodbank program past its original level and supplement the $4.5 million Second Harvest is already receiving from Dane County, according to Parisi.
With the return of the initial funding, Second Harvest will be able to provide more food to The River Food Pantry, Bayview Foundation and their other partners for little or no cost.
“Anytime Second Harvest can get more support in finding suppliers and plugging into the local food network we have here in Wisconsin, it is always for the better,” said Tess Stroh, outreach program leader for the Bayview Foundation.
The money will come from unallocated federal funding provided to the county from the 2021 American Rescue Plan, which was implemented to support municipalities during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Parisi.
As the number of families in need continues to grow, Dane County District 34 Supervisor and state Rep. Melissa Ratcliff, D-Cottage Grove, said the county needs to invest more into the Farm to Foodbank program, especially as the holidays approach.
“It is important that as public policy makers lead, they be responsive to the moment, and right now there’s so much need for help with food for so many families,” Ratcliff said.
The resolution was introduced at the Dane County Board meeting last Thursday and is expected to be reviewed within the next several weeks.
Osborn-Senatus expressed The River Food Pantry’s gratitude for the additional funding for Second Harvest.
“This funding will help us be able to continue to provide the stable, reliable groceries that people need and deserve,” Osborn-Senatus said.
The River Food Pantry is the second-largest partner of Second Harvest. They currently serve groceries and food through eight different programs, five of which were added after the pandemic to meet a rising demand for food services as families in the Dane County community faced new barriers to food access.
Although the pandemic exacerbated the need for food pantries in Dane County, the demand for food security has always existed. According to Osborn-Senatus, The River Food Pantry’s goal was to serve 100 households a week before the pandemic, but the food pantry ended up serving between 600-700 households every week on average.
Today, food pantries across Dane County are serving higher numbers of visitors than they were pre-pandemic and anticipate an overwhelming amount of families in need in the coming weeks, Osborn-Senatus said.
Osborn-Senatus encouraged local residents to volunteer, donate or host a food drive during and beyond the holidays.
“We’re serving year-round. Just because this is our busiest time of the year, [it] doesn’t mean food insecurity ends for people the rest of the year,” Osborn-Senatus said.