The River Food Pantry a Wonderful East-Side Resource

Dane County's busiest food pantry provides much-needed food, clothing and resources

The first thing you notice is the flowers. And that’s a surprise. This is a food pantry. There’s no mistaking it. We entered through a back door off the loading dock of the Natural Ovens bakery plant next door. And right away you see the shelves of food, a room with clothing off to the side, and a couple dozen long banquet tables set up to the right. And of course those colorful bouquets of fresh flowers on every table, signaling that something special happens here.

We’ve found the genuine article in some pretty interesting places over the years. The effort to get fresh produce into the food pantry at St. Vinny’s on Fish Hatchery Road comes to mind. But there’s no denying that the mix of respect, pride and generosity at the River Food Pantry is the real deal. Surrounded by low-income neighborhoods and subsidized senior housing (“just where we’re needed most”), the River is an oasis.

It claims to be Dane County’s busiest food pantry, feeding an estimated five hundred families per week. It has grown from its opening in 2006 to provide some twenty-five thousand pounds of food every week and as much freeclothing as it can collect. It operates on the grocery store model: folks get a shopping cart and they’re free to choose what they like based on a weight limit (and there’s a point system for meat and dairy). Thanks to a variety of partners, especially Cub Foods, clients can take as much bread and produce as they’d like. Dozens of volunteers,including an invaluable group of former inmates in a work-release program, indistinguishable from everybody else, are on hand to assist with collecting the food, check-out and drive-up service.

But the true spirit of the place is found on Friday nights when somewhere around 180 families show up for dinner. The River is the passion of Andy and Jenny Czerkas and when we arrive a little after 5 p.m. on a warm August Friday, they are everywhere at once preparing for the evening’s service. Jenny’s organizing the clothing room, check-in and name tag distribution, coupon collection and more. Andy’s got some two dozen volunteers, including a great group of high school students from the Buckets of Hope program assigned to around ten specific tasks. Two of the student volunteers eagerly take on the kids area where children can play with balloons twisted into animals, hats and swords. (Before the night is over Jenny will have a word with a slightly wild young swashbuckler.)

We join the food service team, and when longtime volunteer and board member Jim Carrier says he needs one or two people at the front to hand out plates to each guest we step up. “You need to greet the guests,” he tells us, “and make them feel welcome. Talk ’em up.” If anybody needs extra help there are volunteer waitstaff. Chef Ray was able to get some nice-looking beef this week and he’s been preparing beef Rouladen for the last twenty-four hours or so. Carrier tells the team he personally helped peel and rice the potatoes. There’s corn on the cob and fresh fruit salad and a variety of attractive desserts. There’s an air of professionalism. Ray’s in his whites with a meat thermometer sticking out of his pocket. We’re all wearing clean aprons and our freshly washed hands are gloved. And people are smiling and friendly. Usually there’s live music. And of course, the flowers. “Take the flowers with you when you leave,” Andy tells the guests, “but wait until after service has ended so everyone can enjoy them.” And on another Friday night, in a time of increasing need, the Czerkases and their team of volunteers served dinner, handed out groceries, supplied clothing—and created community—for hundreds of people.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

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