Grace Food Pantry helps meet local need for food

The economy is suffering.  Money is tight.  Jobs are scarce. 

Any one of these three factors can weigh heavily on the lives of Madison’s families, but taken together they can be crushing. During these times, food pantries like the Grace Food Pantry at Grace Episcopal Church are sometimes the only thing helping these families make it through to the next paycheck.

With this ever-present need for access to food, starting this winter, the church plans to test a new system that would make it even easier for local families to access the pantry and use it more frequently.

Instead of limiting families to only two visits per month, the Grace Food Pantry will now allow them to visit once a week, pantry coordinator, Deb Barber said.

“We can help with more frequent access, so that the people who can make it to the pantry can come,” Barber said. “They don’t have to save up their visit until they’re really desperate.”

Located in Capitol Square on the corner of West Washington Avenue and Carroll Street, the church started the Grace Food Pantry during an economic slowdown in 1979 when many people began to ask for food and help. Now, 32 years later, the Grace Food Pantry is still providing that community safety net for Madison families.

The Grace Food Pantry currently serves about 400 families a month, and roughly 1,000 people overall, Barber said. And while the pantry has not seen a significant increase in patronage in the last year, demand at Dane County’s various food pantries has increased during the economic crisis.

“A lot of churches have been [feeding the hungry] for years,” Barber said.  “But things are getting worse.”

While the Grace Food Pantry continues to serve families in need, they also have economic problems of their own.

The pantry receives a mix of funding from Grace Episcopal Church members, Madison citizens and government agricultural grants. But recent statewide budget cuts have diminished grant funding and affected the Grace Food Pantry and many other pantries’ ability to provide food for families.

For this reason, pantry volunteers have decided to test their new weekly visit system for a few months before instating it permanently, allowing the pantry to determine if their lessened budget can sustain these increases.

“Usually in business, when there is an increase in demand, you get rewarded, people want to help you out,” said Barber. “That’s not the case in businesses like this.”

Staffed by a handful of regulars and a host of temporary volunteers, the food pantry runs like clockwork. 

Some people come in early to deliver food and fill pre-made grocery bags with the essential items, and others like Ruth Sanderson, a regular volunteer for the last 14 years, run the counter during business hours to make sure each patron gets what they need.

“We always have a basic bag of canned fruit and vegetables, soup, a protein, a meat choice, and bread,” Sanderson said.

The Pantry food supplies come from a variety of organizations including Second Harvest, the farmer’s market and various city food drives. 

This variety allows the food choices to change with the seasons, giving families a wider selection of items, Sanderson said. Families can also choose additional food items as well as exchange items they dislike from the pre-packed grocery bags.

According to both women, the purpose of Grace Food Pantry is to help people make it through their weeks with one less thing to worry about.

“We serve anyone in need,” Barber said.

 The Grace Food Pantry is open from 1-3 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and from 10-12 a.m. on Saturday.  To get involved, contact Deb Barber at