In Living

Sherrie Tussler is committed to ending future hunger.

Milwaukee Talks: Sherrie Tussler of the Hunger Task Force

"This looks creepy," says Sherrie Tussler, who is the executive director of the Hunger Task Force.

Tussler is holding a massive jar of strawberry jelly. The lid is sticky and the color is off – somewhere between grape and mystery-berry. She sets the donated jar aside.

"We have an expression here," she says. "Beggars can be choosy."

The Hunger Task Force was founded in 1974 by parents who were concerned about children going to school hungry. In 1977, the food bank began and today, the organization works to end hunger through both advocacy and by distributing food to a network of food pantries, homeless shelters and soup kitchens – free of charge.

Currently, the Hunger Task Force is in the middle of the annual Food For Families Campaign which offers easy ways for people to donate food via grocery store bins, online or in person.

During our recent afternoon at the Hunger Task Force, we spoke with Tussler about homelessness, hunger, volunteerism, children, advocacy and dignity.

We also talked about bizarre-to-us British canned goods and agreed that Twinkies are not food. Tussler's engaging personality vacillates from witty and quirky to look-you-dead-in-the-eye serious.

"It's not so much the non-profit piece that gets me excited as much as working as an advocate on behalf of people who are victims or not treated fairly," says Tussler. "It's just nice to be a voice in the room making sure people have basic needs when no one else is thinking about people who don't have any money." How long have you worked at the Hunger Task Force?

Sherrie Tussler: Seventeen years. Before I came to Hunger Task Force, I did not understand how pervasive hunger is, especially for children. One in four children in Milwaukee is living in a house that does not have enough food for that child to eat.

And prior to coming here, I was the founding executive director at the Hope House and when I first came to the homeless shelter, I was absolutely offended that people were sleeping outside in North America and I thought we should end homelessness. I still believe to this day that we can and we should.

OMC: How many people does Hunger Task Force service every month?

ST: We supply food for 34,000-40,000 people every month. The Hunger Task Force is a food bank and we supply food to a network made up of 60 food pantries in Milwaukee.

One in eight people is using the food stamp program now and I'm here to say that the food stamp program doesn't have wide-scale fraud and that nothing has changed about the rules of the program over the last few years.

But the enrollment has gone up and it's gone up because people are income eligible. We've created a significantly lower class of people who need help just to put food on the table.

OMC: What is the demographic of the people you serve?

ST: We don't really keep track of that information because it doesn't matter to us. If you're hungry, you're hungry.

We are going to see a high number of minorities, but we live in a segregated community where you're less likely to be employed if you are African American. And you're going to have more struggles if you don't speak English. We're going to make sure everyone gets the help they need.

Anybody can hit the skids in their life and it's the community's responsibility to make sure that there's somebody there to help pick people up, make sure there's a roof over their head, food on the table and clothes on their back, because they're not going to get "better" without that kind of help.

And if you're in a position to help, because you figured it out and you're already "better," then help. Do something good. Don't be mean.

OMC: What is the ideal food donation? People often think cans, but what do you like to see the most?

ST: We tell people to donate something they would feed their kids, or their neighbor's or friend's kids, since one in two of the people we assist is a child. Ramen noodles? They get plenty of starches. We like to see peanut butter, tuna, cereal, canned vegetables, fruit juices. If we want people to be healthy we need to give healthy food at the pantry.

OMC: So what if someone donates a box of Twinkies?

ST: They're going to end up in the dumpster. Because they're not food. Sorry Twinkie people, but they're not. Everybody deserves a treat, I get that, but we're not the Hunger Treat Force. We're the Hunger Task Force and we're trying to get healthy food to people.

OMC: You get a lot more donations during the holidays, right?

ST: Yes. So we use this time to, of course, help people with food but also to spark interest in people to help in January and February. Hunger is year 'round.

OMC: How can someone volunteer and how many volunteers do you have?

ST: You can sign up to volunteer online. We have 7,000 volunteers who sort food, collect food, build boxes, work at the farm. Downstairs right now we have volunteers packing frosting into little bags so we can decorate cookies at the holiday train this weekend.

Some of our volunteers come once, some are here 40 hours a week. We welcome anyone.

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