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Milwaukee backyard food pantry grows significantly

Posted at 7:00 PM, Nov 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-11 20:00:31-05

MILWAUKEE — A food pantry that started with humble beginnings in the backyard of a Milwaukee home, has grown like wildfire. It still retains the humble behind-the-house-location, but a new kitchen-like storage facility, increased foot traffic, and a deluge of donations have turned Food is Free MKE into a staple of the community.

"People are desperate to pitch in. That’s what happened," Emma Toth, the creator of Food is Free MKE said.

TMJ4 News first spoke with Toth back in August. At the time the pantry at 56th and Townsend in Milwaukee resembled a more DIY appearance. However, in the past two months, donations and community help have come flooding in.

"Every single step we’ve taken since you were last here is because I said yes to somebody’s crazy idea," she said.

The first difference you'll see is the new shed where all the food is put out for pick-up. What was once a few shelves holding several handfuls of food together now resembles a modern kitchen. There are drawers filled to the brim with different foods. The counter and shelves are loaded with different cans of soup and packaged goods.

A microwave sits to the side of the 'kitchen.' Some might find that peculiar for a food pantry to have, but Toth realized it was a necessity.

"The more we listened to people - there’s a lot of people in different situations for that whatever reasons they don’t have a way to cook their food," which is why they installed the microwave.

There are two refrigerators filled with freshly donated produce. The freezers are also stuffed.

However, the food you see displayed one minute could easily change the next.

This is what the food pantry looked like on Aug. 27 and on Nov. 11.

"If I go inside for five minutes, I come out to a new donation or an empty shelf. It's constant, and that goes all the way through the night."

Around six to ten people might come per hour for pick-up or drop-offs. She said she has seen people picking up food at midnight. It's open 24/7.

It's not just neighbors from Sherman Park coming either. She said people have come from Kenosha, Racine, Waukesha, and Ozaukee counties.

The most popular items are soups. However, as it has been getting cold there has been an increase in demand for warm clothes.

"The other thing that we’ve grown into is some non-food items. The cleaning products and personal hygiene are always popular."

There has been an increased demand for warm clothes as winter approaches.

She has begun to leave out hand warmers, blankets, and even has a hot drinks section like instant coffee and hot chocolate.

To get the shed and kitchen-esque display set up, she has gotten a lot of help from the community.

Habitat for Humanity donated the drawers and countertop. The shed with a roof and gutter was built by her neighbor.

"I built it strong enough so that it will be a garden on top of this roof come spring," Brock Ness said. He is a carpenter and has partnered up with Toth to continue growing the food pantry.

The next step he said is getting a bigger fridge for more food donations and weatherizing the shed. Ness said it's imperative that they are able to keep the area warm during the winter and especially at night.

Toth said she doesn't feel like any of this would have been possible without the community's support and the fact that this is literally behind her house.

The next step for Toth is to weatherize the pantry for winter.

"When you care about your neighbors actually as human beings and you put that in effort into that, and it shows. And they know they are welcome and respected here. It wouldn’t be nearly as successful if this wasn’t my backyard."

With her increasing popularity, she is beginning to realize some limits to what she can do given the size of her space. She wants to expand into other parts of Milwaukee to get more people the food they need.

"We could use more access point since this access point probably won’t actually get any bigger," she said.

What's most impressive is that all this started with the simple idea to put food on the street for anyone that needed it. Just over one year later it has blossomed into something beautiful. From a few pieces of food to overflowing with donations. It's a true testament to the power of neighbors rallying together.

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