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Dodge County Food Pantry now bigger and better

December 28, 2018

The Dodge County Food Pantry has grown a lot in its 30 years of existence, but has never been in a better space than where it is today.

The expanded pantry is in the office wing of St. Vincent de Paul, 125 Dodge Drive, with about 4,000 square feet of space. The space it previously occupied next door is now freed up for expansion of the thrift shop.

The pantry move took place very quickly, with planning starting shortly after office tenants gave notice that they were leaving and work starting in October.

“So when they left the office portion of the building it became an ‘aha’ moment,” said store manager Ben Nelson. “This gives the food pantry a private space with access to bathrooms, a kitchen and a full waiting area; plus they have the run of the basement too.”

“We really needed a bigger space and the walk-in freezer,” said Colletta Cody, who has volunteered for the food pantry for the past five years. “In the old pantry we had a whole wall lined up with freezers, which took up a lot of space. That meant a lot of work defrosting them. We also had very limited space to store food or to accept large donations from companies like Richelieu Foods (which donates frozen pizzas) and things like hams.”

The new location was a large vaulted space that had been divided into offices. Taking out those walls was relatively easy, although it all took more time to install new flooring, open a wall separating the waiting room from the distribution counter and build the new 10-foot-by-10-foot freezer.

“When it was all divided up into office space it was hard to envision what it could be,” said Cody. “We kept pacing out where things could go, but it was still hard to imagine the end result. Then a very generous family donated a lot of racks, and we started setting them up and moving them around. Now you can see how well it’s going to work for us.”

Offices on the north side of the building remain, and a counseling area now stands in the former entry.

The pantry was originally organized by Leo and Bonnie Halverson at First Lutheran Church on North Center Street. The pantry later rented space in the basement of St. Vincent de Paul’s downtown location, and the society eventually adopted the cause as part of its own mission. Thrift store employees did a lot of the work, but even then volunteers played a vital role.

According to Cody, there are a lot of people in Dodge County who need the assistance that the food pantry provides. Whether they’re dealing with job loss, divorce, illness or release from incarceration, they may not have any idea where their next meal is coming from or how they’re going to pay for it.

“We’ll serve different people over time, but the number always seems to grow,” said Cody. “It’s all linked to the economy, but even when people have jobs, they may not get paid enough to support a family. It also takes time for them to recover from a hardship they encountered in their past.”

Cody is the lead organizer of the pantry, assisted by a team of mostly senior citizen volunteers.

Patrons will enter from the back of the building at its southwest corner, off Dodge Drive. Clients at the Dodge County Food Pantry pick up a pre-packed box of food. According to Cody, that is much more efficient rather than having a volunteer accompany each client as they make selections. Volunteers take sorted items off the shelves and place them inside boxes designated for each recipient.

Each Dodge County Food Pantry box contains the ingredients for about 12 meals and generally includes cereal, spaghetti and sauce, peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, canned soup, a pound of frozen ground beef with a meal kit, hot dogs, a can of tuna or canned chicken, perhaps some day-old bakery and pizza.

Clients may add selections from shelves of items in the entry.

The pantry is currently fully stocked because food donations are especially abundant during the holidays. The shelves are much less full in the summer, even though the needs remain the same.

Although headquartered at a charity linked to the Catholic Church, the food pantry is open to all.

“It’s entirely non-denominational — just like the thrift store. Our mission is to serve the needy,” Cody said. “Even though we serve the whole county, probably 75 percent of our users are from Beaver Dam.”

Clients are screened over the phone, with volunteers gathering such information as whether they receive Women, Infants and Children benefits and whether they visit other food pantries.

“We’re here to give them some help,” Cody said. “Clients can only come one time per calendar month. They have to have some other way to get the rest of the food they need.”

Help wanted postings are displayed near the entry for those who might be seeking employment or other opportunities such as abuse shelter or free health services.

The charity serves about 250 households (averaging 425 adults and 275 children) every month. Cody estimates that 50 boxes of those 250 (about 25 percent) help seniors on Social Security or disability.

As for the new space, everyone involved is more than happy to have it.

“This is a wonderful improvement,” said volunteer Emilyn McCarthy.

“It’s phenomenal,” said fellow volunteer Mary Miller.

Cody said, “We’ve certainly come a long way from where we began.”

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