By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Food pantries play vital role in meeting community’s needs
Fighting food insecurity
Second Harvest Food Pantry
VOLUNTEER MARGARET DAVIDSON, right, pushes a cart in an assembly line of food at the Second Harvest Food Pantry in Gays Mills. The food is placed in the vehicles of food pantry patrons. Craig Anderson, left, and Jo Ann Gonos, middle, work at one of the many stations in the line.

GAYS MILLS - It was a mild, sunny afternoon on the day before Thanksgiving in Gays Mills.  There were dozens of cars lined up in the parking lot of the old community building on Main Street. 

One by one, grocery carts were wheeled up to the vehicles as they pulled forward.  Smiling volunteers unloaded carrots, apples, bread, milk, eggs, meat, and other food into the pre-opened trunks.  After each cart was emptied, it was brought into the building and re-stocked by an assembly line of cheerful community members.

This was Second Harvest, the mobile food pantry that takes place in Gays Mills on the fourth Wednesday of each month.  The event draws up to 190 families, some from many miles away.  

JoAnn Gonos, a large contributor to the cause, reported that some vehicles start lining up as many as four hours in advance. 

The mobile pantry is one of many put on by Second Harvest Food Bank of Southern Wisconsin.

Through a network of over 300 agencies and programs, Second Harvest delivers food to 16 counties across southern Wisconsin.  On average, the Madison-based organization distributes a whopping 20 million pounds of food annually.  Partnering with local and regional businesses and farmers, Second Harvest works to provide diverse, quality food options.

The Gays Mills Mobile Pantry has been going on for nearly 13 years.  Brian Larson is a food share outreach specialist who works through Second Harvest to distribute food in nine counties.  He’s been with the mobile pantry since it began. 

“We get a lot of wonderful volunteers here… there’s just an overwhelming sense of community,” Larson said in praising the local effort. 

The mobile pantry typically has 15 to 20 volunteers each month.  Along with the slew of hardworking community members, local youth are getting involved in the cause.  A group of around 15 middle school students from North Crawford travel from school to help out each month.

“The students have a lot of great energy.  They’re well directed and enthusiastic – it really makes people smile,” Larson said. 

Along with the distribution of food, Second Harvest and the mobile pantry provide information to people on how to re-allocate the money they’ve saved on groceries. 

“Food insecurity is not just about food,” Larson said.  “There are often other areas where that money is needed.”

As inflation rates rise to staggering new heights, average hourly wages are failing to even remotely keep up.  As a result, more and more citizens are turning to food pantries. 

“More and more young families seem to be attending the pantry,” according to Harry Heisz, the Gays Mills Village President and a mobile pantry volunteer.

Heisz directs traffic at the Gays Mills event, then delivers leftover food to families after the drive-through is over.  He and others have observed the notable increase in need since COVID struck and in the recent months. 

An estimated 1,670 people in Crawford County are considered food insecure and 28 percent of those people are not eligible for government assistance, according to Feeding America.

Second Harvest and other food banks across the nation have suffered from rising prices and loss of government benefits. 

“We’re in the same boat as everyone else,” said Kristopher Tazelaar, the Second Harvest Marketing and Communications Director. “Our food costs have gone up significantly.” 

Despite the contributions of many generous donors, food pantries have found themselves needing to purchase a lot more supplies.  Prior to COVID-19, Second Harvest was only buying roughly 15 percent of the food they distributed, Tazelaar explained. The rest came from donors and government aid. Since COVID, that percentage of purchased goods has risen to about 40 percent.  The local Gays Mills food pantry also experienced  a rise in the need for purchased materials.

The Gays Mills Food Pantry, which is separate from the Second Harvest Mobile Pantry, is open four times per month and is run exclusively by volunteers.  Renee Salmon has helped to run the pantry for 10 years. Salmon has noticed a substantial increase in food pantry clients, spiking in September of this year.  More people with children in particular have been attending.

Both the decrease in donations and loss of some government benefits can be traced back to rising costs and limited supply.

As Salmon explained, a lot of the supplies provided by the government are inventory that stores didn’t end up selling. With supermarket shelves being cleared due to supply demand, the government receives less unsold food.  The same reasons apply to the decrease in other donations – there simply isn’t as much surplus. 

Along with the loss of benefits, the need for food pantries has grown drastically. The amount of food distributed by Second Harvest is almost where it was at the height of the pandemic – 80 percent more than pre-COVID. 

Anecdotally, some Second Harvest partner programs have reported seeing two to three times the amount of people seeking help from food pantries. 

Fortunately, Tazelaar said, Second Harvest and other programs have managed to keep their heads above water through food and cash donations. 

“Your dollars are working here in the community,”   Tazelaar said. “When everyone thrives, the whole community thrives.” 

That ripple effect is being demonstrated here in Crawford County and across southwestern Wisconsin. 

Tazelaar ended by emphasizing that just a $10 donation can provide 25 meals in our community. Your donation can be made by visiting