MILWAUKEE – Dorene Paley wants to be put out of business.
Fat chance – at least anytime soon.
Paley is the director of the Jewish Community Pantry, an emergency food source located in an area entrenched in poverty. Instead of heading toward extinction, the pantry in November became number one, serving the largest number of people among the Hunger Task Force’s 56 such non-profit, largely faith-based facilities.
It consistently serves at least the second largest number of people.
In Paley’s profession, rising to the top can’t be celebrated, because it means more people are hungry.
The popularity of the Jewish Community Pantry is “understandable,” said Hunger Task Force Executive Director Sherrie Tussler. “Once word gets around that a nice group of grandmothers are packing a great bag of food, and sometimes giving hugs, people are going to go there,” she added.
The bags include fresh food, especially fresh meat that Tussler says “is hard to come by” at other pantries. “A can of vegetables, a can of tuna and some Ramen noodles don’t make a healthy meal,” Tussler said. “If we don’t provide healthier food for people, we are contributing to all kinds of health problems.”
The pantry is co-sponsored by the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center and Women’s Philanthropy of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Its name is a misnomer because it doesn’t only serve the hungry in the Jewish community, but all people in need.
The pantry was created in 1976 as part of the Jewish community’s response to hunger.
“People need our help,” said Paley, noting the difficulty some people have receiving food stamps, or making food bought with stamps last a month.
People can use the pantry once a month. Clients include seniors whose Social Security and other support are not going as far as in past years, the unemployed and underemployed and people responsible for their grandchildren.
At many food pantries, clientele is limited to a few zip codes. The Hunger Task Force imposes no boundaries on the Jewish Community Pantry, located at 2900 W. Center Street in Milwaukee. It is the only food pantry in Milwaukee open on Sundays, and the only one providing kosher food. “They serve while everybody else is worshipping,” Tussler said.
However, approximately 70 percent of pantry clients come from Milwaukee’s most impoverished zip codes.
Paley, who has been director for 28 years, stresses that the pantry “is not a grocery store. We’re here to provide food on an emergency basis, for three to five days, usually at the end of the month.”
The Hunger Task Force provides its pantries with food, but Paley said, “What they’re giving us is 35 to 40 percent of what we need. The remainder comes from local vendors and from what we can buy with donations from the community.”
Clients are asked for identification, their income, any food allergies and the number of adults and children in their household. Bags are packed by volunteers accordingly.
The pantry employs three staff members, while 77 others volunteer – 25-to-30 of whom could be working in the pantry at any given time. The pantry is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. each Thursday, and from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. the third and fourth Sunday of each month.
“Helping our clients help themselves is our goal,” Paley said. “That includes connecting clients to community resources.”
“The common-sense approach the ‘J’ takes is one of their hallmarks,” said Tussler, who directs a staff of 54, a volunteer network of approximately 7,000 and an $8 million yearly operating budget, very little of which comes from the government.
Paley, who has a background in social work, said the pantry tries to make a difference with respect and dignity. “We want to improve the lives of people,” she said.
She dreams of an economy strong enough to make pantries obsolete.
She’s heard enough heartbreaking stories from mothers who say, “My kids haven’t eaten all day.”
How to help: Donate to the Jewish Community Pantry, Attn: Dorene Paley, Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay, WI, 53217, or go online at JccMilwaukee.org/JewishCommunityPantry. To volunteer, contact Dorene Paley at 414-967-8217.
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Number of households served – Jewish Community Pantry