Former county deputy Mark Gierach now serves the cause of justice by seeing that the Saukville Food Pantry provides sustenence for
those in need
The holiday calendars of most Ozaukee County residents are covered with red circles marking parties, family feasts and other celebrations of seasonal excess.
For the volunteers at the Saukville Community Food Pantry, it is simply another time to tackle the ongoing challenge of feeding the area’s “hidden poor.”
The food pantry is entering its fourth year, operating out of the lower level of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ on West Dekora Street.
With its spacious fellowship hall and handicap-accessibility, the church would seem like a natural setting for a pantry, but the program required a little youthful inspiration too.
That is where Mark Gierach, the pantry’s unpaid executive director, comes in.
“It goes back to the days when I was working with the youth group at the church, and we spent about a week on a mission trip to Cleveland. We helped at food pantries, soup kitchens and community gardens,” Gierach said.
“When we got back, the kids asked why we didn’t have something like that here. That’s when I started asking around to see if area churches would be interested in supporting such a program.”
For years, Saukville’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church had been running a limited food pantry, but the number of volunteers was dwindling and service was restricted to a by-appointment basis.
Food for the needy is offered at the Port Food Pantry in Port Washington and Family Sharing in Grafton, but organizers said it isn’t always easy for clients in Saukville to get to those locations.
A couple dozen local families picked up bread, cereal and canned goods each month that initial year, Gierach said.
Last year, that number grew to 131 families, according to Gierach, and so far this year 262 families have been served.
The growth is documented in detailed records the pantry maintains.
“Those numbers tell me both that there is still a need in the community and that more people are becoming aware we are here,” he said.
The pantry is open for food distribution three days a month, typically on the first and third Thursdays and second Saturdays. The next food distributions will be 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Dec. 12, and Thursday, Dec. 17.
The idea of creating a community food pantry in Saukville quickly took on a life of its own with support from churches, volunteers and area businesses.
“We started getting fresh produce from Port Fish Inc. in Port Washington and the community garden at River of Life Church,” Gierach said.
“We get all sorts of donations, but our biggest supporter has been Schmit Bros. auto dealership. Jim and Mike Schmit easily donate thousands and thousands of dollars to the pantry and make sure we have turkeys each year for our Thanksgiving boxes.”
As the unpaid director, Gierach is the primary volunteer at the program, but there is plenty of support from others willing to pitch in.
“They come from all walks of life. Like our clients, a lot of volunteers come and go but there is a core who have been here since the beginning and will probably keep helping as long as we are around,” Gierach said.
Although based at St. Peter’s UCC, he said, the pantry is not a cause supported just by the faithful.
“This is not just a mission of the church. I think helping the poor is the obligation of the entire society,” Gierach said.
With that altruistic outlook, some people may be surprised to learn that before he became the face of the food pantry, Gierach served 30 years with the Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Department.
That time reinforced his notion that there are people struggling with financial need in the county.
“Most of my law-enforcement career was spent serving in the Ozaukee County jail, where you are not dealing with a lot of wealthy people,” Gierach said.
In many cases, the people he saw behind bars were there because of financial circumstances, he said.
Gierach’s eyes were opened to the county’s hidden population.
“We may not have people living on the street like a lot of big cities, but there are people who keep moving from home to home or who spend nights in their car,” he said.
That awareness spurred a desire to help in the heart of the former lawman.
Gierach said he encounters that same kind of sensitivity to the human condition from residents throughout the county.
“We’ve seen there is a willingness to help others here,” he said, “but a lot of people just aren’t exposed to the need. There are areas in every community that draw the low income, but most people who live here are insulated from those areas.”
Gierach said the vast majority of those who rely on the food pantry are elderly.
“They depend on Social Security, and I know how hard it is to live in Ozaukee County on that kind of limited income,” Gierach said.
In order to receive commodities from the food pantry, proof of county residency is required.
“That policy has never been a problem,” Gierach said.
However, he said, pantry volunteers would not turn a needy family away if they don’t have the needed documentation, Gierach added.
“We simply tell them the next time they come in they should bring a utility bill or whatever, so we can update our records,” he said.
The pantry also holds monthly community meals, hosted by volunteers from eight different Ozaukee County churches.
“They do the setup, the cooking, the serving and the cleanup,” Gierach said.
In addition to St. Peter UCC and River of Life in Saukville, those congregations supporting the free meals include Grand Avenue United Methodist Church and Open Door Bible Church in Port Washington, Pilgrim UCC and St. Paul Lutheran in Grafton, Trinity Lutheran in Cedarburg and Unitarian Church North in Mequon.
Each meal draws between 40 and 60 people, many of them senior citizens who enjoy the camaraderie as much as the homemade food.
The next community meal will be a Christmas dinner, at noon Saturday, Dec. 19. Meals are served in the St. Peter UCC fellowship hall.
The pantry can be reached by calling the church at 284-0588.
Mark Gierach finds himself as part stock boy and part cheerleader in his role as executive director of the Saukville Community Food Pantry.
Photo by Sam Arendt