Motivated by her Jewish social justice values, Samantha Angelina, of Madison, partnered with the River Food Pantry to create Food NOW (“Nights Or Weekends”), an outdoor emergency food locker program. These lockers contain a short-term supply of shelf-stable foods that can be accessed by anyone, at no cost.
Angelina’s acts of tikkun olam started at an early age, when her mom looked for ways her children could be involved with the Jewish community. As a product of their involvement, her mom, Dawn Berney, became the executive director of Jewish Social Services of Madison, now retired.
From age four, Angelina volunteered at Shabbat services for a local nursing home, which she continued to do until her graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in May. When she was younger, she would hand out grape juice or challah to participants. As she got older, she would play Chanukah songs on the violin. When in college, she led services herself and played the guitar. At a bittersweet final Shabbat service, Angelina received an award for the “largest percentage of one’s life as a volunteer.”
With a drive to make a difference in the broader Madison community, Angelina received grant funding last year through the Wisconsin Ideas Fellowship. This award is given annually to undergraduate student projects working to address an identified challenge within a local or global community.
Angelina and her student partner on the project, Akshay Kalra, met with the River Food Pantry and came up with an idea to establish an after-hours food distribution system. According to Helen Osborn-Senatus, director of operations, the River Food Pantry is the busiest food pantry in South Central Wisconsin, serving over 2,500 people each week.
Before Food NOW, if a person in need of food could not visit during operating hours, they would have to call a staff member’s personal phone number or coordinate with a social worker to access the River Food Pantry’s resources. This inefficient system prevented people from receiving this basic need in a timely manner. The Wisconsin Ideas Fellowship awarded $7,000 to address this challenge and establish 10 secure food lockers.
When the school year began in August 2022, Angelina and her team got to work bringing their vision to reality. One primary hurdle was to determine what sort of lockers would not only fall within their budget but be sturdy enough to withstand brutal Wisconsin winters. According to Angelina, they spent a lot of time researching what material would be best, what sort of locks would be most efficient, and where the lockers would be located.
The lockers became fully operational in April 2023. They are stocked by River Food Pantry staff with shelf stable non-perishables like granola bars, beef sticks, or microwavable cans of soup. Someone in need of food can approach the lockers at any time, fill out a brief survey on their smartphone, and receive a one-time use code to open the locker and take what they need. At the time of writing, the lockers have been used over 40 times, according to Osborn-Senatus.
“So far, the community response has been incredible,” Angelina said. “When we think of who uses food pantries, we don’t always think of somebody needing to access it if they’re employed. But in reality, a lot of people who can use resources from food pantries are working and still need those resources. So to be able to have the flexibility of timing is really helpful, and people are extremely grateful.”
At the end of the month, Angelina will begin a one-year fellowship with the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. As an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant, she will learn more about public policy, meet with legislators and organize conferences. “I’ve seen and been part of change happening on the ground, and I’m now excited to be involved with the policy side,” she said.