New digs for a busy food pantry

Buoyed by a successful, ongoing fundraising campaign, Saukville organization plans to buy former Tri-Par building to better meet a burgeoning need for assistance

STANDING IN THE offices of the former Tri-Par building at the corner of South Main Street and Green Bay Avenue in Saukville, Mark Gierach, executive director of the Saukville Community Food Pantry, stood next to a rendering of how the building will look after the organization purchases and renovates it for use as its new, larger facility. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

The Saukville Community Food Pantry is ringing in the new year with a special goal — to move into a new facility by the end of 2023.

Sara Pashak, president of the board of directors, said Tuesday that the pantry plans to buy the former Tri-Par headquarters at the corner of South Main Street and Green Bay Avenue from the Gall family on Feb. 1.

The organization has been fundraising for the last year and has garnered about half the money needed to meet its $1 million goal to buy and renovate the structure, she said.

The efforts have ranged from writing for grants worth tens and thousands of dollars to smaller but equally meaningful gestures, such as students at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Port collecting money at a concert.

“You talk to people about the Food Pantry and they ask, ‘How can we help?’” Pashak said. “There are a lot of great people in this county and beyond. I feel like we’re going to get this done.

“It’s very exciting. We’re making some serious progress. Now, we’re doing all kinds of dreaming about how much we can do there.”

Pantry organizers have already started living their dream to an extent. Pashak said the pantry is renting the building for a couple of month and is moving items currently stored in rental facilities to the site.

“People have probably noticed some things happening in the building,” she said.

The new space has roughly 15,000 square feet, allowing the organization to not only create a large pantry that feels like a grocery store but also a spacious room to host its community dinners and a storage space to support those uses, Pashak said.

The building will be more accessible to clients and volunteers, many of whom are older adults, since it has ground-floor access, she noted, adding that a loading dock will help the pantry receive the food it distributes to clients.

Most importantly, they can better serve the pantry’s clients, she said, noting the number of people who use the pantry has increased considerably through the years.

When the pantry opened in August 2012, Pashak said, it served 23 families. Last month, it served 600, and 150 families signed up for the pantry’s holiday boxes.

“That’s more than we had in the past,” Pashak said.

The highest number of people served by the pantry was 699 in August 2022.

During the pandemic, Pashak said, use of the pantry “went through the roof.”

“When we reopened, the numbers continued to grow. We’ve been seeing an increase year over year from 2020 to 2021, 2021 to 2022. We’re serving more people than we ever served in the county.”

Not everyone visits the pantry regularly, Pashak said.

“Our patrons flow in and out of need,” she said. “We don’t see 600 (families) every month. Some people we see every week. Some people we see once a year.”

Most are employed but just can’t make ends meet, she said, adding their clients hale from throughout the county.

“It’s hard to be poor in a wealthy county,” Pashak said. “There is no public transportation. There’s little affordable housing.  People need to realize some of their neighbors are barely making it week to week. They have to make terrible choices.”

The numbers don’t tell the whole story, Pashak added.

“We know it’s hard to come to a food pantry, so we know the need is growing terribly,” she said.

Because their clientele isn’t limited to Saukville, Pashak said, the pantry is considering changing its name to reflect its mission serving all of the county, although nothing has been finalized.

Having a building of its own will also help the pantry raise its profile in the village and county, Pashak said.

“It will help us get our name and story out there,” she said. “Nobody knows about the Saukville Community Food Pantry.”

While the pantry has been doing well at serving its clients, space has become an issue, Pashak said, noting the pantry’s current home in the basement of Parkside Community Church is about 6,000 square feet of “cobbled together” space.

“We thought, do we do less, sort of right-size what we’re doing, or do we expand?” she said.

The board of directors decided expansion was the best option, but found there wasn’t anything on the market that fit.

Then, they talked to Port Washington State Bank President and Chief Operating Officer James Schowalter, who knew the Gall family still owned the Tri-Par headquarters. The building wasn’t on the market, Pashak said, but the family was “really excited to sell the building to us for our purposes.”

“They gave us a great price and made a huge donation,” she said.

The pantry is buying the property on a land contract, she said, adding that the renovations will cost more than the building itself. Those renovations include adding heat to the food pantry space, replacing the windows and making exterior improvements.

The building is “huge,” Pashak said, with room for a large, open warehouse as well as the pantry and a community room.  A full-view garage door will help make it an indoor-outdoor space that could be used for events as well as community meals.

A drive through where the gas pumps used to be could allow people to more easily pick up their groceries

The current offices are usable, and there’s room to store school supplies. There’s a conference room and some space they could potentially lease.

The renovated building would look inviting and help people feel welcome, Pashak said.

“There are so many stigmas around pantries. We want to take as many of those away as possible,” she said. “We hope people will feel like it’s a restaurant at the community meals and a grocery store when they come to the pantry.”

There’s room to expand their hydroponic garden — the pantry grows its own lettuce year-round — perhaps bring their composting program in house and ultimately selling the compost, and create a community garden.

“That’s exciting down-the-road stuff,” Pashak said. “There are so many things we can do in the future.”

Executive Director Mark Gierach has come up with many other ideas for the future, she added, saying, “Mark has the biggest heart in the world. He’s always thinking of additional things we can do.”

Pashak said the pantry worked with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Community Design Solutions group, which did a study to justify expansion and came up with design concepts for the building.

They’re now looking for architectural firms and contractors to bring that vision to life, she said.

One thing they want to do with the building is reflect its long history in the village, perhaps through murals, Pashak said, noting that it has been a book bindery, metal fabrication shop and a car dealership as well as a service station.

Car dealer Ernie von Schledorn purchased a Volkswagen dealership that had operated on the site when he was starting his business, she said, a connection that prompted his family to recently make a $20,000 donation to the pantry, which will probably name the loading dock for the family.

Port State Bank, which has been supportive in terms of funding and in other ways, will probably be recognized in the welcome area.

Pashak said the pantry is continuing to fundraise in earnest. It has asked Ozaukee County to contribute some of its American Rescue Plan Act funds to support the new facility and is planning a gala for March 4.

Pashak said she’s equally excited for large donations — $100,000 from the Gall family, $50,000 from the Aurora medical staff, $100,000 from the Otto Bremer Foundation, $25,000 from the Brico Fund and contributions from local businesses such as $5,000 from Schmit Bros., $10,000 from We Energies, $10,000 from Kemp’s and $5,000 from Be3 — as the smaller ones.

“We still have a way to go, but this is so exciting,” she said. “It’s kind of a dream right now.”


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