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Patti Habeck believes we can solve hunger if we all work together.

Milwaukee Talks: Patti Habeck, president of Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin

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One in seven people in Wisconsin is hungry. With some it's obvious – the man or woman standing on the side of the street with a sign asking for help – but often hunger is undetectable.

"The people who need help from hunger relief systems are often hardworking people with multiple jobs who are just not making enough to make ends meet," says Patti Habeck, president of Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin.

"It might be the person working alongside of you who does not appear hungry. They can't make ends meet for some reason and sometimes it might not be obvious. It could be the health bill of a loved one or of a person making it paycheck to paycheck and just hanging on and then their car breaks down."

Habeck, who has worked at Feeding America since 2011 and served as president since last year, says she often meets people at food pantries who were once food donors, as well as volunteers and now need food assistance themselves.

"It can happen to anyone," she says. "And it's hidden a lot of the time."

But Habeck believes hunger is solvable and works tirelessly with a large network of other dedicated individuals to ensure everyone in Wisconsin and beyond gets enough to eat on a daily basis.

Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin is the leading hunger-relief organization in the state and operates food banks in Milwaukee County and the Fox Valley. It began in 1982 and today serves 400,000 people in 36 counties, including 124,000 children and 41,000 seniors.

OnMilwaukee recently spent an afternoon with Habeck, learning more about her passion for food relief and what led her to the organization.

OnMilwaukee: What exactly is Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin?

Patti Habeck: We are a local food bank that is run by a local board that belongs to a national organization. A food bank is essentially a food pantry for food pantries.

What does it mean to be "a food bank for food pantries"?

That means we provide food and support and infrastructure help to food pantries so that they can be on the front lines to provide the same things for people in need. We create a very strong network of hunger relief organizations that work tightly together so as few people as possible fall through the cracks. I am very, very committed to collaboration to make sure we are solving some of our community issues.

Who donates to Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin?

We rely on donations and have partnerships locally, regionally and nationally with growers, grocers, manufacturers, farmers and individuals who contribute money or food and then we combine it and distribute it. We work with Sendik's, Aldi, Costco, Walmart, Sam's Club, Target and so many others.

With our model, corporate entities agree to arrangements with our national office and those arrangements are also executed on the local level. We do all of the receipting, tracking, database work and so on which means the corporations don't have to work with 600 different pantries – just with us. So there's an efficiency factor to what we do.

What are the standards for donated food?

Our standards for our food are extremely high. None of our food is past date. And our meat is always deep frozen. Food safety is our No. 1 concern, which is why we have so many huge freezers and refrigerated trucks.

Where does your fresh food come from?

We have a very large farm program. We're doing a lot with fresh produce and it's a great priority for us. Our goal is to get the most fresh and healthy food possible out to the food pantries so they have that on their shelves to get to the end users.

There is an integral connection between farmers, food banks, food pantries and the end user to end hunger. We are all part of the same system and we distribute together which is why Feeding America has the tagline "together we can solve hunger."

Do "ugly produce" programs take away food from people in need?

I don't think the answer is as simple as yes or no.

Food waste is a terrible thing and anything we do that can reduce food waste is absolutely necessary. It has to be a priority because it's not only a problem for humans, it's a problem for our environment. Exorbitant amounts of wasted food in our landfills contributes to methane gas which is adding to climate change.

But the hunger relief system is equally as important and the fact is any program that makes a food system more efficient for people (with money to buy food) is going to take away from the hunger relief system. It doesn't trickle down.

The solution is to keep educating people why it is important to donate so there are fewer people in the system in the first place.

What are the best foods for a person to donate?

The easiest thing that enters into the food system is second choice food or processed food. What we really need are products like natural peanut butter and tunas. These are protein alternatives and so important. Peanut butter is gold. It's not only a protein but it can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner and kids can make it safely for themselves if their parents or caregivers are working or not providing supervision.

We also always need staples, like rice, but also quinoa, couscous and healthy pastas. It's a fallacy that people in need don't want to eat well. It's just more expensive to eat healthy. Everyone wants to make healthy choices with food so we need to offer it.

Would you prefer food or money as a donation?

Of course we appreciate and need both. With money though we can purchase food at a scale that reduces the cost and reflects what people's needs are at the time.

So, on a much lighter note, do you always eat all of your leftovers?

I'm actually bad at leftovers. The good thing is that my husband and kids are great at leftovers so nothing goes to waste in my house.

Did you grow up in Milwaukee?

I was born in Milwaukee. My dad (Tony Bahrke) managed MECCA and so I grew up roller-skating in Mecca after hours. I also remember when all the shows came to MECCA – Holiday Folk Fair, Disney On Ice, Tony the Wonder Horse was one of my favorites – and we got to see all the shows on the stage level. I spent a lot of time in Downtown Milwaukee and have a lot of great childhood memories.

Where did you go to college?

My family left Milwaukee to live on the East Coast, but when I was in college I decided to return for college. My grandma was living in Milwaukee and starting to show signs of dementia and needed some help. So I told her I would move to Wisconsin if she would move with me to a college town and she picked Eau Claire.

I didn't know anything about Eau Claire – I had never been there – but I said 'fine, let's go.' And so I moved on campus and found her an apartment about a half mile away. I introduced her to all my friends and they would go over to her house and play cards with her and keep her company while I was attending classes. In return, she would cook for them. They all loved grandma.

In what did you get your degree?

My undergrad is in biology and chemistry. Until my senior year in college, I was certain I was going to be a dentist. I was a dental assistant all through high school and college – and the plan was for me to take over the dental business of the dentist I worked for in high school – but I became really involved in leadership activities and decided not to go to dental school.

I also have a master's from Platteville in counseling and community. I love studying.

What is your family like?

I met my husband in Eau Claire during college. We have three children: Our oldest, Abby, is 24 and she works in Pewaukee. She's getting married in June so that's fun. She also graduated from Eau Claire. My middle child, Emily, is a senior at UW-Madison, and she wants to move to Milwaukee. She loves the city and is looking for her first job here. My son, Jack, is 17 – almost 18 – and he is a senior in high school and just verbally committed to play baseball for St. Cloud State in Minnesota. We live in Appleton.

How did your path lead to the non-profit world?

I started working at the Fox City Children's Museum (now Building for Kids Children's Museum) and during this time I fell in love with non-profits. One of my supervisors had a phrase that defined the culture of the workplace: "if it wasn't illegal, immoral, didn't hurt the children and didn't use the good kitchen towels we were able to take a chance and try something."

So I got to learn programming and how to be a strong problem solver. We turned around the organization's finances in about 18 months and were recognized three times nationally and that's when I realized I had a skill in nonprofits. That job taught me everything that helps me in my job today. I stayed there, happily, for 8 years.

I then went to the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley which allowed me to be on the other side of the coin: I was giving money away instead of asking for money. I realized it's just as hard to give away money well as it is to ask for money. I mean, it's easy to give away money, but to do it in a way that really makes an impact is a real challenge.

After the Community Foundation you came to Feeding America?

Yes. I was asked to look at a job at Feeding America while I was at Community Foundation and at first I said no because I loved my job and I wasn't looking for anything else. But I was asked a second time to look at the job, and so I did.

There was no food bank in Appleton at the time and they wanted to build one, so the job was in fundraising to raise money and build a food bank. I said I want to understand the organization and determine if the community really needed this before I committed. I wear my community hat before any other hat – other than my mom hat.

So I spent two days in the Milwaukee office, but I would not talk to any management. Instead I spoke to forklift drivers, truck drivers, volunteers, anyone working in the warehouse, but no management. After the second day I knew this was a good organization for the Fox Valley to have. I started for real to understand how a food bank really benefits a community. I took the job.

So your first role with Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin was in Appleton?

Yes. I raised the funds and we built the food bank in Appleton. That took about 4 1/2 years. Afterward, Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin asked me to take a role as the executive vice president and eventually I took the role of president.

I travel down here three or four days a week from Appleton, and I believe I get the best of both worlds. I see how the things that Feeding America does affect the entire eastern side of the state. I get to fall in love with two different communities and call them both home.

Is Milwaukee making progress in the battle against hunger?

Milwaukee is truly blessed to have a huge number of dedicated food pantries, food banks, funders, corporations and so many people doing so much good work to help the problem go away.

The key to solving hunger is people coming together. I always tell people we need "food, funds and friends," meaning we need food donation, funds donations and volunteers. With these three elements, I believe we can solve hunger.

For more information about Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin or to find out how you can help go here.

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