Cass Punsel

Cass Punsel prepares for a Saturday pick-up at the Waunakee Food Pantry, where baked goods are donated.

Cassandra Punsel and others who serve the Waunakee Food Pantry have dreams for the operation.

Eventually, they’d like a larger space, perhaps its own building to allow for more food storage at the operation, said Punsel, who took over the role of coordinator held by Natalie Dresen for 20 years. Currently, it operates out of donated space on S. Division Street.

Ideally, the food pantry would be located near the Waunakee Neighborhood Connection, Punsel added.

“I’d love to have a kitchen along the lines of soup kitchen and be able to provide meals. I think our community is expanding and will be experiencing more socioeconomic diversity,” Punsel said.

Punsel, who began at the pantry in December, said she didn’t want to speak for the Waunakee Ecumenical Board, the nonprofit that oversees it, but she and others recognize the need.

Already, she has been working with the Neighborhood Connection and is looking for opportunities for outlets with other groups in the village.

“We’re hoping to work with Create Waunakee that does that local cooking segment,” she said.

Someone like Chef Brian Shoemake, known to the community as “Chef Brian,” from the school district’s food service could demonstrate meal preparation from the food supplied by the pantry.

“For some particular clients, that would be fun, fantastic and engaging,” Punsel added.

Punsel is the first paid, part-time employee at the pantry. Dresen filled that role as a volunteer for 20 years but left to work full time when her children needed her at home less. A friend of Punsel’s who serves on the Waunakee Ecumenical Board mentioned her when Dresen was stepping down.

“It really aligns with a lot of my personal interests within the community,” Punsel said.

She met with Dresen and volunteers who are also involved with the board.

“We had a great conversation, and I was very excited about the potential for the pantry and what we could do.”

Punsel is still learning the job, she said. She’s been involved with the open pantries, noting that now, the building itself is closed to clients who receive products through contactless pickup.

When the Tribune photographed her Friday, she was preparing for Saturday’s pickup.

The clients place their order, and volunteers fill their bags.

“Did I mention how much I love the volunteers?” Punsel said.

She helps to coordinate their work and does data entry to keep compliant with the emergency food allocation program, as the pantry receives funding, along with food, from area agencies such as Second Harvest Food Bank and the Community Action Coalition.

“I’m learning a lot from them,” she said about the pantry volunteers.

The pantry also receives donations from Kwik Trip and Piggly Wiggly, and the volunteers coordinate those as Punsel learns along the way.

Currently, a website is being created to provide the community with a list of needed food items and other information.

Punsel will eventually work on fundraising to obtain more grants. She has previously worked as a Section 8 housing specialist with the Dane County Housing Authority and was in charge of the Allied Drive redevelopment. She also was involved in her church’s Mercy Ministry, and said she tries to help people succeed.

“I don’t want to see people stuck in a cycle. I want to see people do better and get ahead,” Punsel said.

Learning the obstacles in their way and helping them to overcome them, perhaps through training or other efforts is “where my heart is,” she said.

Community involvement

Punsel has lived in the Town of Westport for several years, and her daughter now attends Waunakee High School.

After an incident in May when four students were driving through Waunakee shouting racial slurs from a vehicle window, Punsel created a WaunaTalk Diversity Facebook page with Zoom meetings. She said she was shocked at the naivete among community members who believed the incident was an example of “just a few bad apples.”

Other incidents within the district had already led her to recognize a need for change in the district and community.

“While it would have been simply easy to move to a more diverse community, nothing’s ever going to get better if you just run from problems. And there is a lot to love about Waunakee, and we had already made friends,” Punsel said.

The George Floyd incident was the final impetus for WaunaTalk Diversity.

“I wanted to make the point that the George Floyd thing is different and important, and it turned out to be a nationwide catalyst,” she said. “People seemed to have the impression that a push for change or desire for change in Waunakee was caught up in the fervor of George Floyd. I wanted to point out that this isn’t new, and some people already knew that.”

The Zoom and Facebook conversations then turned to diversity, not just racial, but including those with disabilities and the LGBTQ community, as well. Others participating wanted to be part of the change and WaunaTalk Diversity provided safe space to communicate.

Through the virtual conversations, Punsel and others realized area residents have more in common that could be built upon — the community itself. That led her and others to organize last fall’s Peace Walk.

Punsel noted that the COVID-19 pandemic, while devastating, has allowed more time for reflection and online conversations, perhaps in some ways bringing people together, and she feels more involved in the community than ever.

“I’ve always been one that’s all about changing hearts and minds… I want to get to a place of understanding, and that means I have to be understanding as well,” Punsel said.

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