Sandbar Storytelling Festival

That first year there was about 5,000 pounds…In the last several years, we have really grown…we have two city blocks of garden area and our annual goal is 30,000 pounds of food…(on the Kane Street Community Garden).

Shelly Fortner

Executive Director, Hunger Task Force of La Crosse

We had the chance to sit down with Shelly Fortner, Executive Director of the Hunger Task Force of La Crosse, we talk about her origin story, the impetus for the Task Force, its variety of programming, including the Kane Street Community Garden, we also delve into community support and what is next for this organization.

Want to Support the Hunger Task Force? Attend the La Crosse Winter Roots Festival happening Saturday, February 12, 2022. A portion of the proceeds from the event will benefit The Hunger Task Force of La Crosse, who will be hosting silent auctions.

Attendees are encouraged to bring a non-perishable food item at entry. The Hunger Task Force of La Crosse is aiming to raise $10,000 and collect 5,000 pounds of food.

La Crosse Local is proud sponsor of the La Crosse Winter Roots Festival.
Winter Roots Festival
Shelly Fortner 01:40
So my name is Shelly Fortner. I have been the executive director of the Hunger Task Force for almost 13 years now. Live in La Crosse. I’ve got two grown kids and husband that keeps me busy. I was, shortly after college where I got a social work degree I then joined the staff at the Salvation Army. I worked with families and children in the shelter, then I basically picked up the food programs there. So you know when the opening came at the Hunger Task Force, it was kind of a good fit for me. I knew all the food players in the community and into a little bit more administrative duties then coming to be executive director.

Brent Hanifl 02:20
What was the impetus for the Hunger Task Force? It seems like a different organization than what people traditionally think when they think of the you know, the food scarcity and stuff like that.

Shelly Fortner 02:29
Well, we started back in 1998, we got our 501 C three. And that was a result of just some community folks talking about how we needed to bring healthier foods into people’s diets. And the Cane Street Community Garden was our first project that began in 1999. And that was a community garden located on the south side, it’s now on the north side. But that first year, there was about 5000 pounds grown in that garden and it was given away free there. In the last several years, we’ve really grown again, we moved to the north side, we’ve got two city blocks of garden area. And our goal annually is 30,000 pounds of food grown there. So you know, shortly after the garden began, we thought well, we know that there’s food in the community that’s going to waste we had read a number that 50% of the world’s food produced is wasted. So we knew that there were going to be food items in the area that were going to go to waste and certainly people around here who needed those. So then we formed the Food Recovery Program, which is a food bank. Our trucks go out and rescue food items from distributors, grocery stores, you name it, and bring it back to the building. And then we have a network of food pantries, meal sites, youth programs that we work with to get the food to.

Brent Hanifl 03:54
Researching you guys over the past couple days, and also, we are also working together with the Winter Roots Festival, just seems like a very intensive, well organized organization, you know, trying to provide the services for individuals, and also now throwing in COVID into the mix. How was COVID for the organization? Did you see a lot of community support?

Shelly Fortner 04:14
Well, COVID obviously was interesting for a lot of people, we were really, really unsure what that was going to mean for us at the food bank. In a typical year, we’ll bring in about a million and a half pounds of food somewhere up to 2 million pounds that we bring in and then distribute to our agency network. But COVID really kind of, you know, threw a loop in that we were wondering very much if we were just going to be very short. If we were not going to have the food that was needed. People were going to be struggling and we wouldn’t be able to meet that need. But we were very surprised. Certainly with restaurants closing at the very beginning of the pandemic, there were restaurants that needed their food rescued. So that began right away. Then we had, you know several government programs that came in about farmer to family food boxes, would be one of them extra trade mitigation foods, those kinds of things. And so actually in 2020, with our average number of pounds being collected about 2 million, we had, we saw 6 million pounds of food come through our building. And so luckily, we had really dedicated employees that were here every day, and nobody ever stopped working, we were busier than we’ve ever been. And then on the other side, the distribution side, we saw a lot of obviously, the meal sites were not having congregate meals anymore, people weren’t gathering, some of the food pantries severely limited their hours, or even closed completely. So, you know, we now had to change roles. And instead of just the food banking operation, we had to now find some ways to distribute this food out. So a lot of really new and wonderful partnerships were made in even different communities surrounding La Crosse, where we would get these farmers to family food boxes in a weekly truckload. So luckily, we were able to get a semi truck from Potato King, this helped us out so very much so that we could put that food right from the delivery truck into that, and then spend the next few days getting that food out to people. So groups in Monroe County and some of the other surrounding counties that we serve, we just started having our own drive up distributions, and you know, those have been going ever since.

Brent Hanifl 06:31
Sounds like you have a lot going on. What is next for the Hunger Task Force? I mean, that’s a kind of a simple way to say it. But what are you guys looking forward to? Or is there something that’s coming up that’s really exciting for you guys?

Shelly Fortner 06:42
Well, actually, we’re really looking forward to now starting a new program. It’s a senior stock box. And basically, we know that there’s a lot of seniors out there, actually, you know, over 1,600 in La Crosse County alone who are eligible for these stock boxes, but they’re really not receiving those. This is a sustainable government program throughout the state, and country. But the state of Wisconsin really was underutilizing this program. And there is plenty of room for this stock box expansion. Milwaukee is doing this really well. Some of the really larger areas. Dane County is doing this well, but nothing was being done in La Crosse. And again, talking to city and county folks, we knew that there’s a big need. So we’re now going to be focused on making sure that we’re getting seniors taken care of in our area.

Brent Hanifl 07:34
We’ve also partnered with you for the Winter Roots Festival happening Saturday, February 12th, 2022, at the new ballroom at the La Crosse Center. Many different ways that people could participate in the festival. There’s gonna be music and food. How can people chip in during the festival for the Hunger Task Force?

Shelly Fortner 07:51
Oh, I tell you what, we are so excited for this event. And isn’t it a good time for the community just to finally get out and start to do something. So in February, yeah, we are grateful to be your partner at this event. And we’re hoping to get a lot of people in there. A portion of the ticket sale is going to help the Hunger Task Force. We’re going to have a silent auction. We’re going to have raffles. Folks can donate right there to the Hunger Task Force and look at our displays and talk to folks and see what we are about and what we do in the community and a number of different things that haven’t been planned yet for that event that night. But it’s going to be, I think, just a really great community event and so happy that we’re partnering with you.

Brent Hanifl 08:34
Yeah, we’re really excited about it, too. I think it’s a great opportunity to have a lot of local and regional bands in the area, great food, it’s definitely gonna be a good time. So if people want to find out more, maybe donate to the Hunger Task Force to just find out what’s going on with your different services, what’s the best avenue to send them to?

Shelly Fortner 08:50
Oh, we’re really active on Facebook. I invite people to check that out for sure. The Hunger Task Force of La Crosse. The Cane Street Community Garden, also has a Facebook page. And we have one called Friends of the Cane Street Community Garden where volunteers and donors can kind of see what’s needed and what’s going on there. Our website at Check that out and see what we’re doing. We’re a little behind on updating with all the stuff that’s going on. But you can kind of get the gist of what the Hunger Task Force does and what we need from the community. We just didn’t invite people to be active and follow us and join in on volunteer events and fundraising events like the one that we’re having in February. The Winter routes. Just become involved and help in any way you can. Volunteering is huge for us. We have a fairly small staff. And so we utilize volunteers every single day. Monday through Friday at both the garden and the Hunger Task Force warehouse. There’s always something to do. We are getting food trucks in we’re sorting food We’re, we’re looking at cam labels and condition and that kind of thing we get fresh produce in. That has to be sorted so something to do all the time.

Amy Gabay 10:13
La Crosse Local Podcast is a production of River Travel Media. Do you have an interview idea you’d like to share with us? Message us on Facebook at La Crosse Local. Find out more about us at and you can subscribe to the La Crosse Local Podcast on your favorite podcast app. If you like us, rate us five stars. We appreciate it.

Sandbar Storytelling Festival
La Crosse Center

About La Crosse Local

La Crosse Local is an arts, food, and entertainment podcast and publication for La Crosse County and its surrounding communities.

Find us in your favorite podcast app.

Listen to this podcast on Spreaker