Local 243 member Andy Czerkas, Founder of The River Road Food Pantry, needs your votes in the AARP Hunger Hero Award election

 

There’s another election in progress and we want to encourage everyone – Local 243 members, colleagues, friends, relatives, and neighbors — to vote early and often between now and September 25, 2011. The candidate we’re backing is Local 243 member Andy Czerkas, who is competing for the national AARP Hunger Hero Award.

When he’s not teaching Information Technology classes at MATC, Andy Czerkas spends more than 30 hours a week working in a part of Madison few residents ever visit – a nondescript warehouse located on Darwin Drive, at the base of a long, narrow triangular plot of land bounded on the other two sides by Packers Drive and railroad tracks. Most of his immediate neighbors are warehouses, but there is a large cornfield across the road.

Every week, however, more than 500 families find a way to visit this warehouse, home to The River Food Pantry. Founded in 2006 by Czerkas and his wife, Jenny, an MATC graduate, The River Food Pantry is Dane County’s busiest food pantry, offering free groceries, meals, and clothing to anyone who comes for help. Most of its clients are from neighborhoods in the 53704 ZIP code and about 20% of them are senior citizens.

Climb up a flight of narrow metal stairs and enter the warehouse, which, like Dr. Who’s Tardis, seems larger on the inside than it does from the outside. At 3 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon you’ll observe a whir of activity as volunteers unpack crates of food, stock shelves and freezers, and begin preparing an evening meal for the pantry users who will be arriving shortly.

“Asking for help with food is one of the most difficult things for people to do,” says Czerkas. “We’re educated to be self-sufficient, so we can get pretty disappointed in our abilities to take care of ourselves and our families when it becomes necessary to ask someone else for food.” (continued  on page 4)

Lots of people are teary-eyed the first time they arrive at The River Food Pantry, he says – especially if they’re older and have lost their jobs. But once they’ve seen how things work at the food pantry, many of them express and interest in volunteering to help others. “Last year we clocked 32,000 volunteer hours and we expect there will be more than that this year,” says Czerkas.

Casually dressed and sitting on a folding chair at one end of a long banquet table, Czerkas doesn’t look like either a CEO of a large organization or a candidate in a hotly contested election, but he wears both these titles well.

Every week, the food pantry distributes at least 25-30 thousand pounds of food. It will probably give away more than 1.5 million pounds this year, including more than 200 thousand pounds of food donated by CUB Foods. Most of the food River Pantry distributes, however, is purchased from the Second Harvest Food Bank, where $10 can purchase more than $100 worth of food.

Like many of the people it serves, however, River Food Pantry has no one to depend on to pay its bills. A non-profit, charitable organization, it is mostly funded by private donations says Czerkas.

This year, The River Food Pantry needs $300,000 to pay its bills. Included in this figure are rent ($4000 a month), utilities ($2000 a month), $100,000 for food purchased from food banks, and the salaries of four part-time staffers. That’s why winning this election is important to Czerkas.

The winner of the AARP Hunger Hero Award will receive $15,000 for his/her charitable organization, money that would be well spent at The River Food Pantry, where 99 cents of every dollar donated goes directly to the people it serves.

Even people who can’t afford to donate time or money to The River Food Pantry can help by voting “early and often” in the AARP Hunger Hero Award election. The winner will be chosen by public voting on the AARP website. People can vote once each day by visiting this page on the AARP website: http://aarp.us/pt3mr0 and then clicking on the link to “vote for your favorite Hunger Hero.”

As 4 p.m. approaches, Czerkas pauses to tell a staff member to let in the people who are beginning to line up outside on this sultry summer afternoon. Several dozen people enter, grateful to sit in air-conditioned comfort until it’s their turn to shop for food and eat dinner. This move will also probably make the food pantry’s neighbors happy.

“I’m not sure how welcome we are in this area,” says Czerkas. “We put a lot of stress on other businesses and have to be cognizant of their parking problems when we’re serving so many families at one time.”

Lack of parking places isn’t the only reason why The River Food Pantry may one day have to move. They have offered to buy their current building, but the owner will not sell this warehouse located surprisingly close to the Dane Country Regional Airport. “This is a TIFF district and there are plans to make it a gateway to Madison,” says Czerkas. Those plans do not include a food pantry.

In the meantime, The River Food Pantry always needs what Czerkas calls “the usual” things: donations of food and money, as well as a constant supply of volunteers. He encourages Local 243 members to get involved in any way they can because “helping people is what unions are all about.”

This article was originally published in the Local 243 Newsletter: Volume 1, Number 17 ( August 22, 2011).