Neenah Vincentians answer the call to feed neighbors during pandemic

St. Vincent de Paul Society opens community food pantry

Andy Herson, left, co-director of St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP) Society in Neenah-Menasha, and Dan Johnson, SVDP director, are pictured at the store’s new food pantry in Neenah, which is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays. (Nick Lauer | For The Compass)

NEENAH — One silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic was that it offered Christians all over the world an opportunity to help out their fellow human beings in an impactful way. With the pandemic hitting in 2020, the need for food in the Neenah-Menasha area increased substantially.  

Fortunately, the St. Vincent de Paul Society—Neenah/Menasha was able to answer that call. This spring, they opened a new food pantry in what used to be a grocery store.

“This particular part of Winnebago County was literally a food pantry desert,” said Andy Herson, co-director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society—Neenah/Menasha. “There were a couple of small pantries open a couple hours here, a couple hours there, but not a big permanent presence. The nearest, what we could call a full-service pantry, is 12 miles away, which is St. Joe’s Food Pantry (in Menasha).”

He noted that the Vincentians “used to just hand out gift cards to an Aldi or Dollar Tree to help with food needs. We saw that number exponentially growing, so we started having a few food items here on an emergency basis. We could at least give people some food. It was literally two bookshelves full of food.”

The food space in the store on 1425 S. Commercial Street underwent an “expansion” in August 2019. “We went from 20 square feet to 100 square feet. It was nothing,” said Dan Johnson, director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society–Neenah/Menasha. “No refrigeration. All nonperishable,” added Herson.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society has made this sort of help its main mission ever since its founding in 1833 by Blessed Frederic Ozanam. For the St. Vincent de Paul Society—Neenah/Menasha, assisting the less fortunate has been their focus for the past 99 years.

“We, as an organization, help people with rent assistance, utilities, prescription drugs, eyeglasses, all that,” Herson said.

After a feasibility study, the store got the green light in fall 2020 from its board of directors to create a food pantry. Herson said that they “carved out some space off of our sales floor” as part of a store remodeling.

The ribbon cutting for the pantry was held right after Easter, on April 7. Ironically, the store now offers food in a building originally built for that exact purpose. “It was actually an old Pick ‘n Save, but it sat empty for 20 years,” said Johnson. “This (main) store has been open for eight years. We were (originally) in a small store just up the street.”

While it could be seen as a risk to undertake a project of this scope in the midst of a pandemic, the store received the necessary help and funds as a result of the global health crisis.

“The support we got to open came from the COVID-19 Relief Fund out of the Fox Cities Community Foundation and United Way COVID-19 Fund and then also out of the Community Foundation J.J. Keller Basic Needs Fund,” said  Herson. “They were real instrumental on the coolers and freezers and the electrical.”

Help continues to flood in from businesses in the state. “Right now, probably 90% of (the products) come from Feeding America, the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), local Catholic churches (that) are supporting us with quarterly food drives and private donors drop stuff off here. We also enjoy support from Piggly Wiggly and Pick ‘n Save and Festival Foods,” said Herson.

Along with edibles, the food pantry also provides diapers, personal hygiene products and cleaning supplies.

“That was kind of our niche here. You don’t normally see in a pantry personal care and personal hygiene products. We have two aisles of them out of a five-aisle pantry,” said Johnson.

“We can do that side of the operation because we partnered with the Help for the Homeless Hygiene Drive that ‘91.9 The Family’ radio station puts on throughout the whole state. They’ve been instrumental in the amount of product that we have to offer,” added Herson.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society–Neenah/Menasha food pantry is open on Wednesday from 2:30 to 5:30p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon. Access is also available on an emergency basis.

Despite being open for just three months, the pantry has already proven quite successful. “We’ve seen a steady increase every week. We have approximately 250 families registered with us and approximately 100 families come between the two days every week,” Herson said. “They can come every week if they need it. They can come every other week. They can come once a month. They can come once and not again. Whatever they need.”

Those using the pantry are required to provide proof of residency in the Neenah/ Menasha area.

Donations to the food pantry are welcome, said Herson, along with cash donations.