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Blog Action Day 2011 on Food: Middleton Outreach Ministry

Blog Action Day badgeBlog Action Day is an annual worldwide event begun in 2007 that encourages bloggers to write about the same issue for one day. The goal is to raise awareness and foster discussion. This year Blog Action Day is also World Food Day, so it was a natural fit for a special post.

We asked Ellen Carlson, Community Relations Manager for Middleton Outreach Ministry, also known as MOM, about the organization's efforts to end hunger in the greater west Madison area. We learned about mobile food pantries, snack programs, the Food Pantry Garden, and more.

Read the interview below. For more information about MOM, join the e-list, follow MOM on facebook and twitter, and check MOM's website and blog - in particular an excellent post for September's Hunger Awareness month about how you can help.

AZ: What is Middleton Outreach Ministry's mission?

EC: Middleton Outreach Ministry (MOM) is a non-profit that is leading a community-wide effort to prevent homelessness and end hunger for people throughout Middleton, West Madison and Cross Plains. Through the support of the community MOM provides - free of charge - food, clothing, housing assistance, emergency financial assistance, and special services for seniors.

How much of MOM's work is food-related? What food projects does MOM undertake?

It depends on what statistics you want to use, but financially, including the food that we give out, about 40% of the work we do is food related. Of the nearly 1500 volunteer hours per month, approximately 1000 of those hours are spent at the Food Pantry.

Our Food Pantry is comprised of many programs. The main, of course, is the Pantry itself. A little less than two years ago we changed the model of the Pantry. Similar to most pantries, we used to allow guests to visit only once per month. MOM now allows clients to come as often as they need and take as much food as they like – with very few limits. We are one of only a handful of pantries in the state of Wisconsin employing this model. People in our service area no longer need to worry about being hungry.

We also knew how important it was to make sure that those who couldn’t get to the Food Pantry due to transportation or mobility issues were still getting food and began two mobile food pantries to low-income apartment complexes. The residents look forward to our visits and one Senior woman even said, “I felt like a kid in a candy store.” We also began a snack bag program in the schools to make sure kids have the energy they need to learn.

As the cost of produce can be high for those on a fixed budget, we wanted our guests to have greater access to fresh foods and began a Food Pantry garden. The garden is managed by several volunteers. This year, several clients have also been given plots, garden mentors, and through our “teaching garden,” and shared some of the produce with the pantry.

TurkeyFinally, the holidays just aren't the same without a turkey and all of the fixin's, which is why we have a Thanksgiving Program that offers families all of these things.  And while the Food Pantry is only one of several programs, the ability to use the Food Pantry as often as needed is the hallmark of our continuing help for families. The flexibility of getting food whenever it's needed keeps people from the worry of not having enough to eat and also gives people maximum flexibility when they are juggling their limited resources. Families and individuals don't have to decide whether or not they should eat or pay their rent and utility bills.

What do people need to know about MOM's clients?

It's frequently thought that there is no poverty in Middleton and West Madison - in 2010, MOM’s Food Pantry and its programs had 8,000 household visits, and distributed nearly 215 tons - or 11 semi trucks - worth of food. There was a 31% increase in people using the Food Pantry and its programs, and 45% of the people served were children. Every day that the Food Pantry is open, approximately more than 100 bags of groceries go home with our guests.

MOM’s other programs are just as utilized and needed. At thrift store prices, MOM’s Clothing Closet saved households a total of $242,000 in 2010. Our housing assistance program gave out $78,000 in small grants to over 400 families, ensuring a stable roof over their heads. Our seasonal programs served nearly 700 students with school supplies and backpacks, 1,350 people with Thanksgiving Baskets, and 1,700 people with Christmas Gifts. 2011 has been no different. We've seen a rise in the amount of food being taken at the Food Pantry and are seeing more clients in need.

It's easy for people to think that hunger is something that happens to other people. Often people are surprised to know that the family living in the house next door is living on a reduced income due to the economy, lost jobs and underemployment. Often one person in a family has a decent job, but with four or five mouths to feed, there isn't much money to go around once the rent is paid, or after there is a medical emergency. There are also many people who live in this area who are on a fixed income and there is never enough to go around to all of the expenses that need to be paid. Some people use the Food Pantry every month, and others use it for a short time to get through the month.

What trends and challenges has MOM faced in the last five years?

Certainly the number of people we have seen has risen which means we are always in need of more in-kind and financial donations. Currently our services are offered in two locations, which is very difficult for both staff and for clients. We are excited about future possibilities of moving into one location.

How has social media fit in with MOM's outreach efforts? 

Social Media allows us to tell our story in a way we couldn't have before. With our blog we can more fully share the stories of our clients, as well as the volunteers and donors who give of themselves to help their neighbors in need. Back in the day when everything was done via print, it took us months to share stories and many times, great opportunities for the community to get involved would come and go before we could tell anyone about them.

We want to be where people are at. We are happy to share our top needs and volunteer needs via facebook and twitter and love to converse with others to find out how they are making change in the community and pass it on.

This past year a few community members started a conversation on facebook about needs in the community that they wanted to do something about. A third friend jumped in with a suggestion to help at MOM and within a week they were organizing a huge drive that contributed significantly to our School Supply program. That kind of momentum couldn't happen without social media.

Has MOM participated in projects and collaborations with other local groups?

WisCANsin CANpital: United we CAN end hungerWe are constantly looking for new creative opportunities to involve the community and other groups. For example, this past year we had the first annual Canstruction Madison, where nearly 20 teams comprised of businesses and community groups participated in a competition to build amazing sculptures out of canned and packaged food. The teams worked with their own communities to design the sculptures, raise food, and come together to do the final build. The response was incredible and the event raised 20 tons of food for the Food Pantry - enough to nearly fill a semi-truck - and the crowd was full of people coming to gawk at these amazing works of edible art. We had generous sponsors that helped us offset costs and get the word out about event.

We have another upcoming event called Home for the Holidays where a very generous and talented group of writers and actors are coming together to put on a live old time radio drama. All of their time and talent is given to us - free of charge - and we are lucky enough to raise thousands of dollars to help prevent homelessness.

Sometimes I am in awe of how much people are willing to give of themselves. Their gifts are never turned away and through their own talents and gifts, they make a meaningful and real difference in people's lives. It's beautiful and encouraging!

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