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La Crosse region’s only food bank is struggling, as biggest food drive of year takes place Saturday



FILE - Volunteers help take donations during Food Drive Fridays in the Valley View Mall parking lot back in May of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. (PHOTO: Rick Solem)

The cost of what’s being called inflation isn’t just prices. It’s donations.

The Hunger Task Force (HTF) of La Crosse is feeling the effects, which means everything that depends on the only food bank between Madison and Rochester, is affected, as well.

“Not only (are) low income people seeing a pinch in their budget, everyday folks are seeing that as well,” HTF executive director Shelly Fortner told La Crosse Talk PM this week. “This is a problem for everyone. It would make sense then that the food bank would kind of struggle with getting food donations because there just isn’t as much to give.”

The HTF serves 120 meal sites, food pantries, youth programs and backpack programs in the region. When it’s struggling, there’s definitely a problem. And it is struggling.

But people can really help Saturday, in the easiest of ways with the Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive — or the Letter Carriers Food Drive. This is the HTF’s biggest food drive of the year, and it may be its most important, even since the pandemic.

You may have gotten a Stamp Out Hunger bag in the mail to fill with nonperishable foods. All you need to do is put that bag — or any box/bag — of donations by your mailbox before 8:30 a.m. Saturday, and either your letter carrier or a volunteer will pick it up.

Another big reason for people’s struggles is a federal Foodshare assistance program ended and the benefits to that are now over. Wisconsin residents were getting about $3 extra a day — $95 a month through the program.

Nearly 400,000 Wisconsin households participated in FoodShare, as of December 2022 — when it wasn’t extended — getting an average of about $300 that month, according to state health department data.

“People say, ‘Well, people were getting too much during the pandemic,’” Fortner said. “Well, this abrupt stop to everything, along with rising prices everywhere, is really hurting people. And we’re seeing it in the food banks with decreased donations and increased people that are going to be needing those. And we just have to be prepared to do our job.”

And that job will partly depend on the community, again, with Saturday’s food drive, which is — again — the HTF’s most important one of the year.

“Our goal is to make it to Rotary Lights, which is another terrific program where they collect food for a couple of months,” Fortner said of the Christmas time food drive. “These are the big ones.”

Over the last two years, the Mail Carriers Food Drive didn’t take place.

During the pandemic, the La Crosse community rallied around an alternate way to donate around this time with what was called Food Drive Fridays — where people handed volunteers donations at various locations throughout La Crosse drive-thru style. That drive raised $250,000 and 70,000 pounds of food.

We joked with Fortner on La Crosse Talk PM that that drive was so successful because people really felt like they were contributing — getting out of the house, waiting in a drive-thru line and handing their donations to volunteers — a real feel good for those participating.

Fortner acknowledged as much, but said if that’s what you want to do, then by all means, do it that way.

“Certainly bring them by the Hunger Task Force itself,” Fortner said. “The food drive this weekend will bring it all to the post office and sort it out. But if you want to see what the Hunger Task Force does with it, bring some to us directly, as well. Put it out in your mailbox, but bring us more at our location.

“I’m happy to show you around, show you what it looks like in the building, tell you what we do and what we’re going to do with your donation.”

Host of WIZM's La Crosse Talk PM | University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate | Hometown: Greenville, Wis | Avid noonball basketball player and sand volleyballer in La Crosse

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