Heidi and Reenie stand in front of the cereal section at the JCC wearing blue t-shirts.

Jewish Community Pantry advocacy coordinator Heidi Gould and volunteer Reenie Kavalar in front of the cereal aisle at the Jewish Community Pantry.

In what was supposed to be a temporary solution for local families facing hunger, Milwaukee’s Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center launched its own food pantry in 1976, and has kept the doors open ever since.

“Obviously hunger didn’t go anywhere,” said Heidi Gould, the Jewish Community Pantry’s advocacy coordinator. “Our old pantry director Dorene Paley said our work here is done when we can close this pantry.”

For the past 43 years, the JCC has hosted its food pantry in eight different buildings. Today, the pantry is located on 2900 West Center Street and serves around 800 households each month in the 53210 and 53216 area codes. The pantry is open every Thursday from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. and the third and fourth Sunday of each month from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.

The Jewish Community Pantry will also serve anyone outside of the 53210 and 53216 area codes if they are having a food emergency. Gould shares that about 1/3 of the Jewish Community Pantry clients are seniors on fixed income and close to 50% are children.

“What we hear in the outside world is that people don’t want to work, or they are lazy,” said Reenie Kavalar, a volunteer at the pantry. “I don’t see that. We have grandmas in here taking care of half a dozen kids because their own sons and daughters aren’t able to. People are in need because they pay too much in rent, or don’t have a job because they can’t get one.”

Through Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin’s Produce Capacity Accelerator Program, the Jewish Community Pantry received a cooler to properly store produce, along with training sessions to improve their hunger-relief efforts. Each Thursday morning, representatives from the Jewish Community Pantry come to Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin to pick up produce and meat for their clients.

When clients arrive at the Jewish Community Pantry for the first time, they are interviewed by volunteers in order to be connected to additional resources in the area, such as where they can go for free laundry. Volunteers also donate clothing and household items to the pantry.

Michael standing in front of aisles of food wearing a shirt and t-shirt at the Jewish Community Pantry.

Volunteer Michael Briselli in front of aisles of food at the Jewish Community Pantry.

“When we have clients who are having a bad day, I like to ask volunteers who are new to think about how many times they go into their office in a bad mood,” Gould said. “Imagine on top of that living in poverty and needing to find a way to feed your family and pay your bills. When you don’t have your basic needs cared for, all the rest goes haywire.”

In Gould’s previous job as a school social worker, she often helped students with behavioral issues. When she learned that many of these students weren’t receiving meals at home, she thought moving into the food pantry world was a logical next step.

“In a country as wealthy as this, with the bounty of food that we have, it’s terrible that we have people who actually go hungry,” said Michael Briselli, another Jewish Community Pantry volunteer. “In the tradition of the Jewish community and helping others, working here is a real honor.”

To find a food pantry near you, visit our pantry locator.