Hunger Task Force of La Crosse celebrates 20 years of service

The Hunger Task Force celebrates its 20th year of serving others in La Crosse. Each year, the nonprofit collects 1.5 million pounds of food for those in need and the demand is expected to continue.

The local task force branch started in 1998 with the idea that some people weren’t able to access healthy foods.

“There were a number of people that had issues with that and wanted to change it,” said Shelly Fortner, executive director for the Hunger Task Force of La Crosse.

The nonprofit’s first program, the Kane Street Community Garden, officially opened a year later, in 1999.

“[You] definitely can’t get any fresher food or healthier food than right out of the garden,” Fortner said.

In the first year, the garden grew about 5,000 pounds of produce. Last year, it gave away more than 34,000 pounds of food.

“Just last week, we really planted a lot of onions, broccoli and cabbage, kohlrabi and kale,” said Todd Huffman, coordinator of the garden.

With an ever-expanding field, the garden needs hundreds of volunteers to plant, water and harvest the fresh veggies.

“People think, ‘Oh, it’s just a garden.’ No. There are so many people working behind the scenes that are supporting it,” Huffman said.

Any extra produce is used in the Food Recovery Program for distribution. In 2000, the organization served just three area programs. But now, it helps stock 101 meal sites and food pantries in four counties.

“We have small food panties [and[ we have really large food pantries,” Fortner said.

She thinks the need for services will go up as laws deciding who receives food assistance change at both a state and national level.

“We are going to see, probably, people drop off of that SNAP accessibility, including a lot of children right here in La Crosse,” Fortner said.

But there is hope. Three times a week, people can pick up fresh veggies, absolutely free. All staff ask for is a helping help.

“It’s easy to get involved and no experience necessary,” Huffman said.

If you’re interested in helping or receiving some of the vegetables, the task force is holding an open house on Monday from 4 to 6 p.m. at its Clinton Street location.