More than a food pantry

More than a food pantry

January 30, 2020

Written by Meghan Marsden Parsche, United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County volunteer blogger

Food is not only a basic human need, it is a source of comfort and an important part of social connectivity and human bonding. So for members of the community experiencing food insecurity, how and where they access food is important.

This is one of the driving philosophies for Friedens Community Ministries, Milwaukee’s largest network of food pantries and a longtime United Way partner.

“Nourishing the community fulfills a need for food,” says Sophia Torrijos, Friedens’ executive director. “But just as important is how we provide food to the community; how we make them feel.”

Friedens helped nourish over 25,000 households last year. One of their pantries, Despensa de la Paz, serves one of the most diverse, densely populated parts of Milwaukee, which also happen to be home to an extremely high need, traumatized population.  It is a sex trafficking “hot spot,” and an area of high drug use and homelessness. The vast majority of the households served by Despensa have a household income of less than $25,000 annually.

Despensa is currently open only on Saturdays, yet serves an average of 130 households per week from a small space that is essentially a long hallway.

“At the moment, Despensa is a bit of a ‘pop up pantry,’” explains Sophia. “Everything is currently on wheels.”

However, change is coming.

Thanks to support from two significant sponsors, Bader Philanthropies and Hands for Hope, Despensa de la Paz is currently undergoing a renovation that will triple its size.  Phase one of the renovation includes new flooring, paint, expanded gathering room, a multi-purpose area  and reconfiguration of the space to make it more efficient. Phase two will create additional office space, which will increase staff presence at Despensa, allowing the site to operate seven days a week. The second phase will also update the kitchenette to support additional programming around food.

Sophia emphasizes the role that environment plays in serving their clients.

“We care about the dignity of our clients, and it’s important that we have a space that reflects that. The renovations will create a more welcoming, trauma-informed space.”

While providing food to the community is important, Friedens’ work extends beyond that to include programming, opportunities for socialization and connecting clients to additional resources in the community.

“We always emphasize that the work we do is relational, not transactional,” explains Sophia. “The renovations will not only allow us to operate more efficiently, they will help us move past the old food pantry model to fully becoming a food and community resource center.”

Sophia describes Despensa de la Paz as a hub and a connector for the community they serve. By inviting partners in, they are able to layer resources. For example, through a partnership with Mount Mary College, dietetic students provide nutrition information and blood pressure screenings to clients. A legal clinic is also regularly offered. After the renovation, Despensa will share space with regular partner Street Life Communities, creating a more permanent collaboration. With the addition of multi-purpose spaces, Sophia hopes that Friedens can invite even more partners in.

A key Friedens partner is United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County, which provides funding support for all four pantries. But the United Way partnership also extends beyond helping to feed the community.

“We get so many volunteers through United Way, and they’re always thinking of us when they receive donations of clothes, books, and other things,” says Sophia. “The expansion will allow us to continue to build our United Way partnership, offering even more resources to our clients,” she adds.

If you are interested in making a difference in the lives of community members as a volunteer at Despensa de la Paz or any of the other Friedens food pantries, you can find volunteer opportunities on United Way's Volunteers United portal.

Meghan Marsden Parsche is a proud United Way supporter, stay at home mom to her four young children, and volunteer writer for United Way. Meghan enjoys telling the stories of the programs and people making a positive impact on our community.


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