Verona Press - 9/3/2015

Growing presence

Food pantry gets in new groove to meet needs of the community

Samantha Christian

Unified Newspaper Group

Thank-you notes were written all over a whiteboard during Badger Prairie Needs Network’s grand opening Aug. 23. One had a simple message scrawled in the corner: Helping people … it feels good.

No doubt this commitment of “neighbors helping neighbors” for nearly 30 years has fueled the volunteer effort to transform what was formerly known as Verona Area Needs Network (and the Verona Food Pantry before that) into BPNN’s comprehensive support system for those who can use a helping hand.

Over the past year, the nonprofit has changed its name, moved locations, reorganized leadership, served more people, expanded hours and added community-based services in its mission to end hunger and address the root causes of generational poverty.

BPNN outgrew the basement of the city’s old library and moved into the single-story former administration building at the Badger Prairie Health Center complex at 1200 E. Verona Ave. with accessibility in mind.

Everything about the new building and location points to this mission.

It’s across the street from a bus stop for those using public transportation, and it is also a short distance from the Badger Prairie Community Garden, where BPNN and some of its patrons now grow plots of fresh food.

Expanded area

The 7,500-square-foot building features a larger pantry store with a walk-in freezer and cooler, a Joining Forces for Families office with an on-site social worker and the Prairie Kitchen nutrition center with commercial-grade equipment. Other offices and conference rooms are also available for developing partner programs such as legal assistance, health screenings and financial education.

That expanding web of services is held together by a common strand: preserving dignity. Even the inside of the building, with its brightly colored walls, open layout and natural light, was designed around this mentality.

Rather than trudging down into the cramped, dark space at the old food pantry, patrons are welcomed by volunteers as they enter BPNN. They are encouraged to bring their children along to explore the new playroom while they are helped at the registration counter just down the hall.

Those who need access to technology can also benefit from the addition of Wi-Fi throughout the building, and computers in the large community room will be available during certain hours for people to update resumes. That room is intended to be a gathering space which can be rented out for events, meetings or classes.

Board president Bob Kasieta said he hopes people notice when walking in the new building that there is no “us and them,” it’s only “us.” BPNN has also instituted a policy of “if you meet someone, greet them” by acknowledging people with a smile and friendly hello.

“Look at the world that you live in and appreciate how many people help you every single day, and isn’t that what we’re about in terms of trying to get to the causes of generational poverty? We’re just helping other people,” he said.

The “Move the Food” capital campaign is inching closer to its $435,000 goal as a result of donors and fundraising events, but support is still needed now that the renovated building is open.

“Getting here was a start … but now the work begins because we have to sustain this effort,” Kasieta said.

Pantry improvements

One of the biggest and most obvious improvements of the new food pantry is the absence of stairs and an elevator.

Those fixtures had been necessary to access the old food pantry located in the basement of a church at the city’s former library on Franklin Street. And it makes a big difference to both volunteers and patrons.

Now the whole building is on one level and even has a back entrance for delivery trucks to unload boxes of food. The food pantry, which doubled in size and has wider aisles, has a natural entrance and exit with restrooms nearby.

There is also a large scale to weigh incoming and outgoing food and a storage area behind the walk-in refrigerators and freezers to allow the organization to take advantage of cost-saving bulk food purchases and food drives.

The pantry orders food from Second Harvest Foodbank and Community Action Coalition and gets rescue items from local grocery stores. While the pantry also receives processed food from companies, a healthy dose of fresh vegetables gets brought in from community members, the UW Health Verona Clinic garden and Badger Prairie Community Garden.

“Everything we’re trying to do here is smarter (so) we can maximize the advantage of all of the wonderful, generous gifts people give us,” Bob Kasieta said. “Now we can do it in a way that can accommodate a greater need.”

With a commercial kitchen in the same building, BPNN can offer cooking classes so its patrons can learn more about nutritional and culturally-relevant food options.

Since there is often an overlap between people who are food pantry patrons and social worker clients, it made sense to house Joining Forces for Families under that same roof as BPNN. Other auxiliary services are in the works for vacant offices there to address the needs of those who are facing health, legal and employment issues.

Volunteer effort

Karen Fletcher, who recently retired as the food pantry coordinator, has seen the organization change over the last 12 years in that position.

“When I started out it was like a small mom-and-pop grocery store; and (now) it’s more like full-fledged supermarket … It’s a show place. It’s beautiful,” Fletcher said. “It’s just grown so much. And with the growth, there’s more requirements and expectations and things like that, too.”

As a completely volunteer-run nonprofit, BPNN has modified its structure to appoint five different coordinator positions rather than just one coordinator responsible for the whole operation. With the extra duties, Martha and Doug Maxwell stepped up as of Aug. 2 to be the new food pantry coordinators, Teri Cobb is the produce coordinator, Roxi O’Brien is the volunteer coordinator, Marcia Kasieta is the nutrition center and kitchen coordinator and Bob Kasieta is the community development center coordinator.

The Maxwells tackle a hodgepodge of roles, including ordering products, getting computers and databases to work, helping volunteers, hosting patrons and attending to building maintenance. Until they train more people to help with shifts, the 74-year-old couple will be present at every food pantry opening.

“It takes a lot of people to run this place,” Doug Maxwell said. “And you can’t anticipate when people are going to come … It’s kind of like running a grocery store.”

He said each shift generally has five volunteers helping patrons. Each family picks out enough food for 7-10 days, including milk, bread, eggs, canned goods and meat, as well as unlimited fresh produce. Patrons also receive personal essentials like soap and toilet paper.

Although BPNN already has 150 volunteers (the majority of which come from Verona), Maxwell said there are more opportunities such as stocking shelves, checking in patrons, entering data, cleaning, and helping with produce, the kitchen and garden projects.

“In each of us there is a desire to unite to do something worthwhile, to make the world around us better in some meaningful way,” Bob Kasieta said. “When we join with others who feel the same urge and act on the same sentiment, there are no bounds to what we can accomplish.”

Family focus

The new BPNN building has space for more than just food. To address the systemic issues of poverty, the board is connecting with well-respected organizations in the area so the facility becomes a “one-stop shop” for families.

“There’s no need for us to come in here and say we’re going to create all these new programs when the programs already exist,” Bob Kasieta said. “This is a marvelous community … and now we can provide them with a space to do the things that are already happening.”

Some future services may include health clinics, legal services to resolve landlord-tenant and discrimination issues, job and transportation resources and domestic abuse assistance programs. BPNN will try to coordinate when other programs are on site so patrons who are already at the food pantry can take advantage of additional services.

“The Badger Prairie Needs Network decided it isn’t enough simply to feed people,” Kasieta said. “(We had to) figure out how we were going to make a more fundamental difference in the lives of the people who come to us.”

So far, one of the offices is occupied by on-site social worker Lisa Hemauer with Joining Forces for Families, which had been located in the basement of St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church. She said the new space will make her more accessible to the people who also use the food pantry since the hours will align better and it is in a more prominent location with other resources.

“We do resource referral and advocacy, but we work really closely with people in the areas of housing, employment, connection to benefits and different programs,” she said. “We have a philosophy of an open door … just helping people problem solve and navigate systems.”

Hemauer, who has worked with JFF for four years and previously worked in child protection through Dane County Human Services for 14 years, said she also communicates with local law enforcement, schools, public health and landlords. The biggest issues she has been seeing relate to housing and homelessness, which she said boils down to getting families stable by generating income with sustainable employment.

“We’re just really kind of imbedded within the community, and the idea is to be located in the community where the people are that are needing to access resources,” she said.

Now that JFF is located in the same building as the food pantry, Hemauer has been getting more referrals from patrons who can visit her just down the hall. Her office hours are Tuesday, Thursday and Friday by appointment by calling 848-2108, and a caseworker from Community Action Coalition will also be available Tuesday mornings.

Across from her office is a kids’ playroom, which has large windows on two of its sides so parents can keep an eye on them while sitting in the waiting area or utilizing BPNN’s growing services.

“We want it to be a place that welcomes people and welcomes families and has something here that demonstrates that’s what we’re trying to do,” Kasieta said. “This is an amazing community effort.”

Pantry, kitchen use fresh garden ingredients

BPNN has taken steps to ensure its patrons have a variety of food options and learn to become more self-sufficient through cooking classes at the Prairie Kitchen.

“We are rescuing pristine vegetables, which is so awesome,” produce coordinator Teri Cobb said. “That’s one of the things we want to do is preserve people’s dignity; we don’t want to just hand them the second (or) third time around vegetables.”

Cobb, who started volunteering with the food pantry in 2012, helps manage the Seeds to Supper garden program. Community members were asked to “Plant a Row for the Hungry” this spring through Jung’s Garden Center, and for a small fee, BPNN can grow seeds in the greenhouse at the Middleton Outreach Ministry food pantry and pick up the starter plants in April.

Food pantry co-coordinator Doug Maxwell, a retired tomato breeder and professor of plant pathology from UW-Madison, used his experience to help bring in nutrient-rich soil and plantings for the raised organic garden beds at Badger Prairie Community Garden this spring. There, BPNN uses two large 20-foot-by-40-foot plots managed by volunteers and a smaller plot shared between six patrons.

“Our patrons have been very successful with gardening as well, and they end up donating whatever their surplus is because they feel like they want to give back to the community,” Cobb said.

She said there are three staging areas for produce that comes into the pantry depending on how new it is or how long it has been in the refrigerator. However, volunteers are instructed to “throw it out (or ask) when in doubt.”

“The ‘Move the Food’ (slogan), it’s just so funny how that just kind of goes with everything,” Cobb said with a laugh. “We try to rotate the vegetables out as often as we can to keep them moving, because a lot of people do come in throughout the day just for vegetables.”

Although this is a very busy time with summer produce, Cobb said volunteers have already started succession planting in the garden to prepare for the fall and winter season.

“It’s a nice cycle with the networking and the food growing process,” Cobb said. “We’re trying to attach education with our vegetables … and we’re trying to use recipes and (demonstrations) that are four to five ingredients or less and things that you can use from a food pantry. It’s fun to get creative with that, too.”

The Prairie Kitchen nutrition center will also teach healthy cooking to senior citizens and community members through culinary classes, as well as provide opportunities for Verona Area School District 18- to 21-year-old special needs students to learn cooking skills. The kitchen features commercial-grade equipment such as a 14-foot condensate and exhaust hood with fire suppression, gas ranges with standard ovens, a double convection oven and a blast chiller, according to a news release.

Already signed up to use the kitchen are UW Extension’s Eat Smart Program, Madison College’s culinary enrichment classes and Verona Area High School’s ProStart culinary program. The kitchen will also be available to rent by food processors, caterers, food cart businesses, personal chefs and the general public with all proceeds supporting BPNN’s operating costs.

Cobb said leftover zucchini, squash and tomatoes can be shredded or chopped in the commercial kitchen next door and then frozen back in the pantry. VAHS students intend to cook with food from the pantry and then return the finished meals and products to the refrigerator or freezer for patrons to take home with them.

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