Uniting to Fight Food Insecurity
Feeding Our Communities with United Services (FOCUS) was founded in 2020 when three food organizations merged in Wisconsin’s South Wood County. FOCUS combines the individual strengths of each organization; food pantry services, free community meal service, and weekend meal backpacks.
“Prior to joining forces, the local food organizations were basically competing for resources to achieve the same goal,” said Dale Davis, FOCUS Operations Manager.
“As one organization, we’re able to have a greater impact with those same resources, and our communities benefit from the joint efficiencies.”
South Wood Emerging Food Pantry Shelf (SWEPS) food pantry began in 1975 to provide food to area residents only in emergency situations. SWEPS expanded dramatically over the last 45 years and now provides food on a regular basis to those in need in South Wood County. In 2020 SWEPS provided food, hygiene products and educational services to over 6,300 households and nearly 18,500 people.
The Neighborhood Table (TNT) is a free community meal service that began with a meal served to approximately 50 people New Year’s Eve of 2003. TNT has grown substantially since 2003 and now offers meals every Thursday and the last two Tuesdays of the month (pre-COVID). Approximately 150 meals are served on Tuesdays and about 280 meals each Thursday.
Rapids Family Backpacks (RFB) was established in 2011 to assist children with food insecurity needs over the weekend while away from school. Students take home a nondescript backpack filled with food items and a retail voucher for perishable food items. The program currently runs from October to May and assists about 85 families.
In spring 2022, the programs will relocate under one roof to make the best use of resources, better serve guests and create a better working environment for volunteers. The new facility more than triples the organization’s current square footage. Situated on one level, it will provide better access to guests and volunteers with mobility issues. Volunteers that cook for TNT will enjoy the new, expanded kitchen.
Guests will have access to all the FOCUS services with one stop: weekly meal, pantry items, fresh greens grown in the organization’s hydroponic garden, and much more.
Donations will be shared among the services as would best fit. The new facility includes a food processing center to safely repackage and salvage produce and other foods before spoiling.
“At the current facility, cold foods need to be loaded in the refrigerator and freezer piece by piece, “said Dale Bikowski, FOCUS Treasurer. “The new process will make it easier for volunteers and preserve the foods better.” The large, walk-in freezer and refrigerator can accommodate entire pallets of food, reducing the physical handling required.
“The new facility brings the excitement of being able to expand services and programs and develop more ways to support healthy living through food and eliminate food insecurity in our local communities,” said Bikowski.
The community has embraced FOCUS efforts. In addition to a sizeable grant, the capital costs to the new facility required FOCUS to acquire about $250,000 in community support. Through generous corporate and personal donors, FOCUS surpassed that amount.
Executive Director Q&A
FOCUS Operations Manager
For Operations Manager Dale Davis, whether in service in Haiti or at home working in engineering, he has always loved helping people. Prior to joining FOCUS as an employee, he volunteered at the food pantry for more than a decade. As he, along with the entire team, worked to grow the impact they have in the community, he focused on a few basics. It started with providing classes to educate the community about healthy living through food. “We have done garden tables and garden buckets. We started small with hydroponics, said Davis. “We now have four units planted so we can harvest one a week, impacting 80 households with every harvest.”
In his opinion, his strongest effort has been to continually work on strengthening collaborative works. Whether it’s being a drop site for Feeding America, sharing product back and forth or talking about failures and success together, building a bond between many different programs and strengthening work collectively produces a greater impact in our communities. Dale noted, “As we work with the utmost kindness and respect for our clients, I see great things in store for FOCUS.”
Q. What are some things you know now that you wish you knew when you first started as a nonprofit leader?
A. When I first started as Operations Manager, I really wanted to develop a strong collaborative work between local and nearby programs. I feared it would be a daunting task and approached it with a sense of trying something unsurmountable. As I began talking with other program directors or leaders, it seemed everyone had similar desires but uncertainty kept them from pursuing it. Encouraged, I drove hard to make it happen with many of them. Now, we have numerous programs we work with closely. I only wish I had pursued it earlier without trepidation knowing now how “easy” it was to accomplish.
Q. What has been your biggest source of pride as executive director?
A. As an operations manager, I find it energizing to see the tremendous giving nature of our community–in time, physical donations and monetary donations. Our community has stepped up on many occasions and just helped make things happen seemingly effortlessly.
Q. What are your three biggest accomplishments in your career as a nonprofit leader?
A. First, as mentioned before, would be developing collaborative works with other programs. Second accomplishment would be the development our educational programs. The third would be the start of our hydroponics program.
Q. What are the dominant challenges that you see nonprofit organizations facing and what do you think would be viable solutions?
A. The biggest challenge is to be sustainable. I do not have a solid solution for this but I know it starts with getting our story out there in a way that draws people in and gets them involved.
Q. What other executive directors or philanthropic leaders do you look up to?
A. As I think of the non-profit world and all that it entails, I would have to say I draw most of my inspiration from several of my board members and two regular donors. Their sacrificial giving of time and energies on a consistent basis really raises the bar for everyone and motivates them (and me) to do and be the best in what we do continually.
Q. How do you see the organization changing in the next two years, and how do you see yourself creating that change?
A. With our merger two years ago and now our relocation into one facility, I think many things will only get better as we collectively move towards a stronger future. I hope to increase our connection with local business and increase the number of them who donate product for use in our programs. One of the ways I plan to do this is through the Direct Connect program we are involved in with Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin. I would also like to see our educational programs grow to reach the greater community. This will be easy to do when we start having our classes in a larger place where we are not limited on attendees and can open it up for all. I have many ideas and wishes. The trick is to slowly grow our programs, but only when we are able to do so successfully and effectively.