Badgers announce ‘Yes, We Can!' campaign

Month-long food drive at 21 Madison elementary schools will benefit area food pantries

MADISON — For Chris Brockel, as the calendar turns past Labor Day, "it's like somebody flipped a switch."

As the coordinator of Food Security for the Community Action Coalition of South Central Wisconsin, Brockel directs the Dane County Food Pantry Network, an association of 37 food pantries in 12 cities, including 25 in Madison.

After Labor Day Brockel is inundated with phone calls from people who want to organize or help out with winter holiday food drives.

"It's wonderful," Brockel said. "Certainly not going to deny it or turn it away."

Hunger, however, does not go on vacation when the holidays pass. And food pantries regularly fight a seasonal battle. The summer months and early fall can be particularly difficult.

At this time of year, the DCFPN, which supports large pantries such as the Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul, and also small community pantries, has a healthy supply of fresh produce, provided by garden projects, local farmers and donations gathered weekly from vendors at the Dane Country Farmer's Market.

"But the rest of our warehouse, at times, you could hold a barn dance in here," Brockel said. "It gets pretty empty."

A program spearheaded by University of Wisconsin football players and the athletic department hopes to alleviate some of that concern.

In a press conference Monday, senior wide receiver Jonathan Orr and senior tight end Joel Nellis, a Madison native, announced the "Yes, We Can!" initiative, a month-long food drive in 21 Madison elementary schools to benefit the CAC.

Flyers are being sent home with students at participating schools within the Madison Public School system, and from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15 students are being encouraged to donate non-perishable food items. As incentive, UW football players will visit three or four schools, likely those that collect the most donations, and discuss the importance of community involvement with the students. The players will also assist the CAC with collection of the food and distribution to the food pantries.

"It's a lot of guys that come from all around the country," said Orr, a Detroit native, regarding the UW football team. "The Madison community has opened up their doors…. It is just a way for us to show our appreciation."

"A lot of people, guys on the team, they come from out of town and kind of joke around that Madison is this town surrounded by reality," said Nellis, who attended Madison Memorial High School. "But the reality is, is that not everyone has food all the time. Especially the kids in school, they might not even have an idea that kids next to them are without food."

The Yes, We Can! program was born tangentially from an idea that popped into Orr's head during the summer. He asked UW athletics communications director Justin Doherty if the athletic department could create reality programming of a kind, having cameras follow a student-athlete around for a couple days or a week.

But in discussions with Doherty, Orr decided instead to create a community service project and to involve his teammates in the endeavor.

"Eventually it came down to this, where we could get a lot done; get involved with the community and also serve a greater purpose than entertainment," Orr said.

The plan took flight, and Doherty and Orr broached it to defensive backs coach Ron Lee, the community service liaison for the Badgers' coaching staff, who enthusiastically lent his support, according to Doherty.

The idea was firmly taking shape when the CAC was asked to become involved.

"The idea came from UW football players, and Jonathan Orr specifically," Brockel said.

In addition to the food resources the program will reap for area pantries, Brockel hopes that it helps build awareness of the enduring needs throughout the community.

"You just wish that… you could train people a little better to think August is a good time, late July would be a good time, February would be a good time, to donate as well," Brockel said.

"And part of that I will admit is our fault, and our problem," he said. "We have to do a better job of community education."

In that regard, building community spirit within the youth of the city is an important aspect of the program.

"It is a way to show elementary school kids… the importance of giving back and how they can really build strong communities," Orr said.

"The sense of giving back and being involved in the community… that's part of that message that the football team wants to bring out to the schools," Brockel said.

Because of food pantries' typical needs in late summer and early fall, Brockel wanted Yes We Can! to begin as soon as possible once the school year was underway. A complicating factor for local pantries, he said, is that attention is focused on the ongoing tragedy in the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

"Rightfully people's focus has become sort of changed," Brockel said. "How can we help the folks down in the Gulf region? But unfortunately need does not go away here either."

"There are a lot of people out there that are in need of food and I think at a time now when everyone is giving it doesn't hurt just to give a little more," Nellis said.

Brockel fears that higher gas prices, which are already pinching wallets, will lead to higher costs of food and other goods, exacerbating the strain on food pantries.

"It will make it more difficult for (people in poverty) to make their ends meet," he said. "So it becomes especially important that we not forget about them now and collect food on their behalf and make it available."

Click here for information on contributing to the Community Action Coalition

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