Since the beginning of June, Reach Out Lodi has partnered with Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin to provide groceries for families in need during these difficult times.

The local school districts had been handing out breakfasts and lunches to children in the district twice a week, which would last them the entire week. That program lasted the few months from March to May while the schools were shut down due to COVID-19.

When that program stopped, organizations like Reach Out Lodi weren’t as connected to the school children as they had been.

“Now with COVID-19, we lost some contact with those families, and there’s been a greater need for food for families with kids,” President of Reach Out Lodi Jim Schmiedlin said.

Managing Director Mary Wilkes added, “After school ended and that program was finalized, then this sort of fell into place.”

Every Friday at 10:30 a.m. at Lodi Elementary School, Reach Out Lodi holds a drive-thru food pantry in which a week’s worth of groceries are given to all cars who pass through. The service is not limited to just Lodi residents or families in the school district, as Schmiedlin and Wilkes said all families from Poynette, Arlington and other surrounding areas are welcome as well. The purpose of the service is to help any and all families who may be struggling right now.

Second Harvest delivers all the food to LES at around 9:30 a.m. every Friday, with anything that needs to remain frozen or refrigerator stored inside the school until needed.

The school and Reach Out Lodi also partner together with the program Blessings in a Backpack, which provides certain families with the necessary food needed for meals over a weekend, while children aren’t in school.

“We have a really strong partnership with Reach Out Lodi,” Lodi Elementary School Principal Mike Pisani said.

So when Reach Out Lodi paired with Second Harvest for the drive-thru pantry, a distribution location was needed.

“Reach Out Lodi is such a vehicle for this county and they reached out to us, saying that they could get the food, and that they just needed a location,” Pisani said. “And it just happened to coincide with the school year winding down.”

Pisani knew there was a need for this sort of operation as the school had provided meals for families in the past, with about 23 percent of families taking part, according to Pisani.

When the district stopped handing out breakfast and lunches to families with school children, all parties knew that some sort of distribution needed to continue. Pisani knew a lot of families had benefitted from past services.

“We handed out about 250 meals a day, so we know this avenue was being accessed,” Pisani said, referencing past distributions.

How the drive-thru pantry works

The operation on Fridays has three individual stations, making it possible for three different cars to get their groceries at a time. Each station has either four or five areas of stacked boxes, providing a different group of food items.

“As soon as we’re done (with those three cars), we signal the next three cars to go in,” Schmieldin said.

Cars may pick up for multiple families, but must let the volunteers know, so that the appropriate number of boxes are put in each trunk.

There have been at least 20 volunteers helping Reach Out Lodi each week. Once the food is loaded off the Second Harvest semi, the volunteers get their assignments and have questions answered.

Items vary from week to week, but usually include some combination of produce boxes, a dairy box, cooler items like breads eggs and yogurt, a pre-cooked meat box and an assorted freezer bag of groceries. The two produce boxes can range from 10 to 17 pounds of food, while there’s around 15 pounds of the cooler items. The dairy box can be up to 27 pounds, which includes two 2-gallon milk cartoons. The pre-cooked meat box contains about 11 pounds of food, while the assorted freezer items can make up around 15 pounds, including 7.5 pounds of various meat products.

The event lasts until the final boxes are distributed. Schmiedlin noted that on June 25, the final car that was in the long line received the final boxes that were available.

About 200 families have benefitted from the service each week, with Wilkes saying the most in one week has been 237 families. On July 10, the order was bumped up to 320 boxes of each, with all being distributed. There were only 200 orders on June 26, and there was no distribution on July 3 as Second Harvest was doing inventory.

“Each week it seems to be growing,” Wilkes said.

Pisani added, “We’re seeing a lot of people take advantage of this.” He added that the service initially wasn’t going to be weekly, but a request was asked of Second Harvest to provide the drive-thru food pantry once a week. Second Harvest honored the request.

Perhaps the best thing about the distribution to Schmiedlin and Wilkes is that it helps anyone who needs it. There are no questions asked of any car of the drive-thru event. If a family needs groceries, all they need to do is have someone stop by and pick up the food.

“People can call in advance and we can make deliveries if needed,” Wilkes said. “We want to help those that may have missed it.”

In addition to the people dealing with lost jobs, the Friday distributions are met to help “anybody who is struggling during these current times,” Schmiedlin said.

Wilkes added, “It’s open to anyone. There’s no questions asked. Everyone is struggling one way or another. Anybody might need some things.”

She added that some people may avoid the events each Friday because they feel that others are worse off than them. Wilkes said that while that may be true, “but you may need it, too.” She said that the hardest thing to do sometimes, is ask for help.

“We want people to be comfortable to come to us,” Wilkes said.

While the drive-thru pantry is just handing out food items, Reach Out Lodi knows that people are in need of other products as well. With no personal essentials handed out on Fridays, Schmiedlin and Wilkes encourage those who need such items to come by the full pantry inside the Reach Out Lodi building.

“Hopefully this experience will help families get to know who we are and can take advantage of what we have to offer,” Schmiedlin said.

Previous to this year, Reach Out Lodi has done large food distributions at area churches, with Reach Out Lodi providing sandwiches for children who attended summer school. Churches would sign up for a given week to host the distributions. Schmiedlin said things had operated that way for the three or four years prior to 2020. Wilkes said volunteers will also shop for school supplies from the various lists provided to them.

With the uncertainty that’s likely to be there come fall, nobody is sure if the weekly drive-thru program will continue after school starts or if schools will provide bagged breakfasts and lunches again.

“We are in a state of flux and there is so much unknown,” Schmiedlin said.

Wilkes added, “If this option (drive-thru food pantry) is available in fall, we’ll do it.”

Pisani knows what a valuable asset Reach Out Lodi is for the community and the surroundings areas to be a driving force in a much-needed service for those who are going through tough times.

“It’s an awesome collaboration between all agencies,” Pisani said of the elementary school, Reach Out Lodi and Second Harvest working together. “It came together fast and was relatively seamless.

“Reach Out Lodi is one of the key pieces to this,” Pisani added. “I don’t know if the school could do it alone, or if Second Harvest would have known to reach out to us.”

Afternoon full of deliveries

After the drive-thru pantry is finished, volunteers at Reach Out Lodi then hit the road to make normal weekly deliveries to those who have requested. The deliveries to the elderly, disabled and low-income families have been going on well before the drive-thru pantry was started.

The deliveries go to areas of Lodi, Harmony Grove, Dane and others. Schmiedlin said there is an additional 140 deliveries outside of the weekly event with Second Harvest.

“We’ll continue those deliveries when school starts,” Schmiedlin said.

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