APPLETON — St. Joseph Food Program in Menasha has been a godsend to families in the Fox Valley who struggle to put food on their tables. What started as a dream for one man has become a thriving nonprofit organization that touches the lives of over 5,000 individuals each week and distributes around 3.7 million pounds of food to its clients every year.
Tom Schiltz founded St. Joseph Food Program in 1982. He credited the idea for taking on such an endeavor to the late Capuchin Friar Fr. Bill Alcuin, who started the Fox Valley Catholic Bible Study Group in 1977. “Fr. Bill changed my life,” said Schiltz. “I wasn’t the holiest person to ever walk the earth. But the way he taught Bible study was, ‘How do you bring Christ back to the Fox River Valley and Green Bay, too?’”
With that thought in mind, Schiltz opened his eyes to the needs of people in the area. While driving to Green Bay after a Friday morning Bible study, he heard on the radio that Miller Electric was laying off 400 people. “I said, ‘Wow, what are these poor people going to do? What if that was me? How would I feed my family? How would I pay the bills?’”
By chance, Schiltz noticed a large garden on his trip which got him thinking. “We Americans plant what we think we’re going to use, we use a quarter of what we plant and let the rest go to rot,” he said.
At the time, Schiltz and his late wife Jan belonged to St. Joseph Parish in Appleton. The idea was planted in his mind to start a food pantry there and he presented it to the Social Concerns Committee. The group loved the idea, but no one knew how to start or run such an endeavor.
“So I said, ‘I’m going to come down there tomorrow morning,’” said Schiltz. One morning turned into four months with Schiltz absent from his own business as he managed the food pantry. At Fr. Alcuin’s suggestion, Schiltz talk to Deacon Jim Asmuth to see if he could help him. “He said, ‘I’ll have to come down and look at it someday. … He followed me for the week. Pretty soon he knew what to do and he took it over. If it wasn’t for Jim, we wouldn’t have this program like we have it today.”
St. Joseph’s Food Pantry started out with just one refrigerator in the cafeteria at St. Joseph School, but it’s now an integral part of the Fox Cities community. Schiltz attended St. Joseph School , but wasn’t excited about school when he was a kid. “I went to Kimberly High School to play basketball — that was the only reason I went. I quit after my sophomore year. I always wanted to be a farmer so I went to work on a farm.”
He joined the Navy at age 19, serving as a photographer from 1951 to 1955. After his discharge he went back to high school. “I was older than two of the teachers and I taught a class in photography,” he said.
While Schiltz is no longer a regular volunteer at St. Joseph Food Pantry, he does help out on occasion. He is also a Mass server and in the quilting group at Sacred Heart Parish. “I’m the only guy in the group. Fr. Don (Zuleger) says every henhouse needs a rooster.”
One of the things he most enjoys now is helping out Fr. Norm Krutzik, a retired priest. “I drive Fr. Norm to all of his appointments. He asked me if I could do that because he was selling his car and his house,” said Schiltz. “I think the diocese should put together a list of the priests that have retired and the last five or six assignments and publish it on the internet. These priests shouldn’t have to sit after they retire. People can take them to dinner, appointments, invite them over. They spent their whole life serving people and now we should forget about them?”
Even though Schiltz started St. Joseph Food Pantry, it was the hard work and dedication of many other people that has made it the organization it is today, he said, adding that a person doesn’t have to start a foundation or a charitable organization to make a difference in their community.
“There’s so much to do. We’ve got so many poor people. If you’re down and out and you’re poor, there’s not a better place to be than right here in the Fox River Valley,” he said. “The people are compassionate. They care. You’ve got to think about other people if you want to be successful.”