The Lodi Enterprise and Poynette Press took a look at poverty in the area, and how a few local food pantries are fighting hunger. Three of these programs — the Poynette Area Community Food Pantry, the Gospel Lighthouse food outreach program at Lodi Town Hall, and Reach Out Lodi — were profiled for the story. Two accompanying stories were drawn from interviews with patrons at Reach out Lodi and a UW-Madison rural sociology professor. A full listing of area food pantries can be found on page 6.

Reach Out Lodi

The Reach Out Lodi Community Store is open Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and Saturday 8:30 to 11 a.m. Those interested in getting some help outside of those hours can call (608) 592-4592 to set up an appointment.

The facility offers community programs, a rental hall, and children’s programming. Their number is (608) 592-4592.

Two women who have been coming to Reach Out Lodi for years and live in the Lodi School District agreed to sit down for an interview with the Lodi Enterprise and Poynette Press editor. Their names have been changed in the interest of privacy.

“I’m not ashamed (to tell my story), but it just affects more than me,” said Liz, a woman in her early 40s who has four children, one of them who was born with a severe medical issue.

The father of Liz’s children is imprisoned and is legally barred from living in the state. She said she comes from a “good family” and relies on them for help, but can’t go to them all the time.

“Sometimes you need to go other places, because you feel like you’re always knocking on their door,” she said.

Liz’s three children range from grade-school age to early 20s. The birth of her youngest child, nearly a decade ago, and their serious health complications landed her in serious financial straits. Liz’s child spends most of his time in the hospital or bedridden at home, meaning Liz is unable to hold a job, due to her obligations to care for her child.

Liz’s friend, Dawn, had a child born with severe health issues about 5 years ago, and had to spend a month in the hospital. Dawn has four children.

The two women depend on each other.

“You kind of learn each other’s story .. you gain comfort from knowing that someone else has been where you’ve been,” Liz said.

The two women have also found an essential lifeline at Reach Out Lodi, a local community center and food pantry. The pantry is more accurately described as a store, with shopping carts, meticulously-stocked shelves, and well-organized clothing displays.

Reach Out Lodi President James Schmiedlin said the interior design is no accident, and that it is designed to offer a dignified experience for those in need.

“Our goal is to provide smiling faces and a relaxed atmosphere,” he said.

Schmiedlin stresses a non-judgmental atmosphere at Reach Out Lodi among his volunteers. Volunteers are urged to be welcoming when greeting people who are often under immense stress.

“By doing that, you can gain trust. Once you gain trust, they start talking to you about other things — car repair, utility payments, child care,” he said.

Not everyone is a good fit to volunteer at Reach Out Lodi. Schmiedlin recalled a volunteer who was speaking derisively of how patrons were spending money outside of Reach Out Lodi.

Schmiedlin took issue and let the volunteer go.

Choices like that one ripple into the kind of environment cultivated at ROL.

“People see you as your own person, with your own story here,” he said.

Liz recalled the mounting expenses and stress of the time after her youngest was born, when she came into Reach Out Lodi.

“That’s when I started struggling a lot. The gas, the mileage on my car, everything. It was horrible,” she said.

Liz described her mental state at the time as extremely dark.

“You just feel so alone. With everything going on, and not knowing where to turn, you get kind of the run-around from a lot of places. Like you have to go here, but before that you have to go to three other places.”

Liz said she would go to Columbia County for help, and be sent to Dane County, but once Dane County found that her children attended Columbia County schools, she would be sent back to Columbia County.

“Basically you get nowhere and you end up giving up,” Liz said. “I think that’s what the plan is. What are you going to do? It’s not like you can fight them.”

“The system is basically designed to make you give up,” added Dawn, a friend of Liz’s who has been by her side for many years, navigating her own struggles with poverty while helping Liz.

Melissa Duane, director of Columbia County Economic Support division, said that benefits are determined by the state, and that while her job is quite separate from determining specific benefit levels, she believes there has likely been a downward trend in FoodShare benefits in the past few years.

Both Liz and Dawn agreed they would be lost without Reach Out Lodi.

“When you need any kind of help, even emotional help — they’re not trained to do that, but they’re willing to be a friend,” Liz said.

GLO Food Outreach

“GLO” stands for Gospel Lighthouse Outreach, and on the fourth Saturday morning of each month, hungry families and individuals can come to the Lodi Town Hall and fill a box, or two or three (within reason), with food. The program is held from 9 a.m. to noon, though McDonald recommends arriving shortly before 9. The program’s motto is “Everyone deserves a blessing.”

Along those lines, GLO President Cynthia McDonald asks that visitors to the program sign their name, contact and demographic information, but beyond that, no further questions are asked.

McDonald said the lack of geographic or income-based limitations allows her to serve the largest amount of needy people.

McDonald said just because a family has a nice vehicle, or lives in a nice house, there might be more going on behind closed doors. The primary earner could become injured, and lose their job, along with benefits. After bills are paid, there’s not enough money to feed the family.

McDonald estimates she helps about 250 people each month — 100 children and about 150 adults. She estimates she provides 2,500 pounds of food each month.

McDonald echoed something noticed by other pantry directors: even full-time work is often not enough to pay the bills and buy food.

“There’s a working middle class that don’t have enough to pay for everything and put food on their table,” she said.

The pantry is entirely self-funded, and run by Cynthia and her mother, Harriet Billman. Harriet and Cynthia, along with her father, started their first food outreach program 35 years ago, in Plainfield, Wis., assisting mostly migrant farm laborers.

McDonald remembered how the children would light up and come running toward her father’s truck as they approached the migrants’ homes with sweets, produce and food in tow.

“It was almost like you could see in their souls through their eyes,” she said. “It was so touching. We get so wrapped up in our daily dealings, we take simple things for granted, like getting fed.”

McDonald said as a waitress, with eight sons, she has fallen on tight times herself. She remembers the calculus of grocery shopping with limited funds — confidently writing a check at Woodman’s, or more carefully taking $150 cash into Aldi’s with the mandate to make it last for weeks.

“There’s shame with poverty — people feel they’ve done something wrong, or they wouldn’t be in this boat,” McDonald said. “It’s not true. That’s called life.”

Poynette Area Community Food Pantry

The Poynette Food Pantry is held at the Village Hall, 106 S. Main St. from 1 to 3 p.m. on Tuesdays and 5 to 7 p.m. on Thursdays.

The pantry recently gained 501©3 certification came about as a result of hours donated by Boardman and Clark law firm. Now, donations to the pantry are tax-deductible, and the pantry can apply for grants. The pantry has successfully done so, recently winning a $9,500 grant from Monsanto.

President Ruth Ann Waugh said “nothing will change” about the pantry regarding its hours or mission.

Dianne Vielhuber, who has been involved with the pantry for about four years, said the pantry is unique in that it has always been “autonomous and independent.” Because of that, the pantry can set its own guidelines on who qualifies, and how much they receive.

“Our approach is if people are in need, we are there to serve them,” she said.

Vielhuber acknowledged that coming to a pantry can be difficult for a family, because of the stigma.

“Part of it is they don’t want someone to see them at the pantry,” she said. Parents worry about their children being segregated if it’s found out they go to the pantry. Vielhuber sees it a different perspective: “Food’s a basic need. When families need food, I want to do what I can to help facilitate that,” she said.

One takeaway Vielhuber has come away with through her work at the pantry is that poverty can strike anybody.

“It doesn’t mean people aren’t working or trying,” she said. “ Vielhuber noted that she often sees families with both parents working, or one parent working two jobs.

“I think we forget there’s a sect of society that’s trying but just can’t get over that hump,” she said.

That said, the Poynette Area Community Food pantry has received a wealth of support from the community, Vielhuber said.

“What makes the Poynette Pantry unique is there’s so much local support,” she said. “People regularly stop in and say, ‘I have a donation, whether it’s food or monetary. It’s really amazing how much local support there is.”

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