Local pantry offers ethnic flavors

It's late afternoon on a cold day in winter as Bernadette Arellano looks at the two "Asian Bags" of primarily ethnic food she has prepared for the Milwaukee Christian Center's clients. They are the only two that remain from 30 or so the staff made for the week.

This is a calmer season for the Center's pantry operations as people stock up on food with their tax returns, according to Arellano. Usually, there wouldn't even be two left.

Arellano is the food pantry coordinator for the Center, 2137 W. Greenfield Ave., one of the few places in Milwaukee where people in need of emergency food supplies can come for ethnic food.

Most of the ethnic food the Center distributes goes to people of Southeast Asian descent, according to Arellano.

Only two other agencies in Milwaukee tailor their donations specifically to Asian clients. For a city of half a million, that doesn't fit the bill.

"With the influx (of Asian immigrants) and growing population, it just isn't enough," Arellano said. U.S. Census data shows that Milwaukee's population is about 3.6 percent Asian, but new Census Bureau data shows that Wisconsin's foreign-born population is up 31 percent since 2000.

Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Hunger Task Force, which distributes donated food to pantries, said the agency is not overwhelmed with requests for ethnic food, but still has difficulty filling the need.

Hunger Task Force distributes the goods it collects in food drives, and it collects little ethnic food. Donations of macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and canned vegetables vastly outnumber donations of ethnic food.

"Very few people donate culturally relevant foods," Tussler said. "Most people buy (and donate) the foods that they eat."

Hunger Task Force does supply the Milwaukee Christian Center and other emergency food distributors with grant money that they can use to purchase ethnic food if they wish.

"They're meeting the needs of the vast majority, but when it comes to ethnic or religious food, that's where (grant) dollars provide in the infill," Tussler said.

The pantry's patronage has been growing. Three years ago, it served about 500 individuals per month, according to Arellano.

Last November, over 1,500 needy individuals received emergency food assistance from the pantry.

Last year, the Center's pantry served 337 Southeast Asian clients, not including repeat visitors, according to Sarah Hasslinger, communications coordinator. That number rises to 1,001 when repeat visitors are included, according to Arellano.

"I don't know if word got out or we had an influx, but more and more people are coming," Arellano said.

Part of the reason may be because of the high cost of ethnic food.

"This stuff is so costly," Arellano said as she surveyed a tower of stacked boxes of rice noodles and canned baby corn, sacks of rice and soybeans and canisters of beef paste. The food had just set her back $1,300. "I could go to (low-priced supermarket) Aldi and do a lot more with that money. It's just more costly."

The Milwaukee Christian Center doesn't receive any of its food at discount. The Asian food store where Arellano used to shop for supplies gave her a 10 percent discount, she said, but it has since closed, forcing her to shop at Asian-American Wholesale Inc.

Asian American does not give the Center a discount, but it does provide free delivery, which Arellano said helps.

El Rey Mexican Products Inc., where the Center buys most of its Hispanic foods, does not give the Center an official discount either, but does work with Arellano to stretch her dollar, she said.

While most of the ethnic foods in the Center's pantry are very specific, a few have crossed ethnic borders and achieved broader appeal.

Pinto beans and hominy, or ground white corn, are traditionally Hispanic foods that the Center's clients have come to use no matter what their ethnicity. Part of the success of these foods might be due to their versatility — Arellano said she even has a recipe for Pinto Bean cake.

The Milwaukee Christian Center is primarily funded by the United Way, private donations and "Empty Bowl" fundraisers, which are charity events where patrons make a donation to receive a lunch of soup served in a handmade bowl they can keep. Arellano said the United Way and Empty Bowl dollars have remained fairly steady, but private donations have started to wane.

"We cut corners I wish I didn't have to with the ethnic food as well as with the regular food," Arellano said. "I'd love to put more in those bags."

Working with people of other cultures and trying to determine their dietary needs and preferences has been a learning experience for Arellano.

For instance, she used to purchase a certain type of rice noodle for the Asian bags until a co-worker told her that they were intended more for use in soup. Thereafter, Arellano purchased another type of rice noodle which, when served with beef paste, becomes more of a meal on its own.

"I still have my ignorance in that area since I'm not immersed in that culture," she said.

The food the Center donates is intended for emergencies only.

"All the pantries in the city are supposed to be an emergency resource," Arellano said. "People sometimes tend to become dependent, but in all honesty, 90 percent of them are really in crisis."

Cutbacks in food stamps and other welfare programs and a lack of jobs keeps the Center's services in demand.

"You fall down, you get back up. You fall down again, you get back up again," Arellano said, "That's what places like this are for."

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Mar. 1 2005.