Nonprofit Spotlight: The River Food Pantry marks 15 years

Posted by Samantha Haas on Wednesday, April 14th, 2021 at 3:06pm.

What began in 2006 as a couple’s dream to feed 100 families a week on Madison’s north side has grown tenfold as the need to provide healthy food access has also increased over the last 15 years. With a vision to achieve a fully nourished community, The River Food Pantry is now South Central Wisconsin’s busiest food pantry and serves more than 1,000 families each week.  

Much like the body of water, The River is no stranger to adapting to change and charting a new course when faced with obstacles, especially those intensified by the pandemic. The River distributed 2.4 million pounds of food to less than 5,000 households in 2019, compared to a record 3.7 million pounds of food to over 6,000 households in 2020. Communications Manager Becca Carpenter estimates that one-third, or 5,000 of the 15,000 people served in 2020, were children.  

“When we totaled up volunteer hours in 2020 compared to the year before, we had 50% less volunteers and service hours, yet we’re almost doing more,” Carpenter said. “We’re so grateful for people who are willing and able to come in and help, but it has been difficult getting enough volunteers to cover shifts for growing programs.”

The River quickly shifted its Tuesday through Friday food pantry operations from an in-person grocery experience to a curbside pickup model and a contactless delivery option called River Delivers for those who are homebound. Each household receives an average of 120 pounds of fresh and nonperishable foods and other essential supplies per visit, from produce, meat, dairy, gluten-free and other special dietary options to diapers, feminine products, cleaning and hygiene supplies. 

“When we try to estimate the value of those groceries it comes out to about $210 per visit,” Carpenter said. “So that’s about how much each household could be saving per week if they used our services.” All of The River’s services are free. 

While The River put some of its services on hold due to the pandemic, such as the Community Meals, Caring Clothing Closet, and Friday Night Van Rides, it has also introduced and emphasized much-needed programs during this difficult time. For example, FAM (Family At-Home Meals) offers clients healthy, ready-to-eat, curbside-to-go meals for everyone in their household up to four times each week. “I like being outside by the line of cars because you get to know people,” said volunteer Lori Gibson. “One of the things that gets instilled in us, whether staff or volunteers, is the dignity and respect that we show to people, because there is no shame in being in that line or needing that extra assistance, whether for the short term or long term.”

Another program that operates out of The River is MUNCH (Madison Unites to Nourish Children at Home), a mobile lunch program that delivers pre-packaged meals to children and families in nine low-income neighborhoods on Madison’s north side. “Normally the lunches are only served on non-school days (weekends and holiday and summer breaks), but throughout the entire pandemic we expanded to six days a week and adjusted our schedules for students learning from home,” said Carpenter. “It’s one of my favorite things to help with because you’re like the ice cream truck going out -- they know what time the MUNCH van is coming and it’s fun to interact with the kids.” 

The River’s biggest fundraising event, Feed the Need, was also canceled in 2020 because of the coronavirus. “It would have been the fifth year and a wonderful partnership with Madison College and local restaurants in a sort of mini ‘Taste of Madison’ with food, music, and a silent auction,” said Gibson, who was on the planning committee. “I enthusiastically said yes to being on the planning team, because issues like homelessness and food insecurity have always been near and dear to my heart.” 

When coming up with ideas for a 2021 fundraising event, Gibson said the planning committee knew that while they can’t bring back the Feed the Need format yet, the need to feed Madison is greater than ever. Since this year happens to be the food pantry’s 15th anniversary, their idea is to hold a fun and festive curbside community celebration called The River’s Birthday Bash on May 15. “It’s a cool idea because we’re replicating what clients experience when they come through the line with this drive-thru event,” Gibson said. “There will be three meal choices, and the food (made by The River chefs who formerly cooked at Epic and Manna Cafe & Bakery) will be amazing.” 

Also in May, The River plans to launch its new online marketplace, in which clients can shop for their groceries from the comfort of their home once a month and then “come pick up the food as they normally would curbside or have that be delivered through River Delivers,” Carpenter said.

The River is also excited to be a recipient of a one-year $422,000 grant from California-based Inland Empire Community Foundation to “incorporate more fresh fruit and vegetables into each program and expand its reach to at least 1,500 new households facing food insecurity,” said Carpenter, giving well-deserved props to new grant writer Hanna Jeske. Part of the funding will also go toward coordination efforts, including packaging, distribution, storage, and education.

Although 2020 may have been the year of “adapting,” 2021 is what The River is calling the year of “collaboration.” The River’s inventory comes from “a variety of sources, including food recovery from grocery stores, restaurants, and food retailers around town, but we do have to purchase some food, too,” said Carpenter. “This grant will empower us to make sure we have the freshest produce possible, work with as many local farmers as we can, and collaborate with other local organizations.” Some of these groups already include Hope's Home Ministries through First United Methodist Church and Friends of the State Street Family to share food with individuals experiencing homelessness where they are. 

Ways to help The River

There are several ways that you can support The River in its mission to end hunger and build a stronger community for all. A contactless but highly impactful way to give back is to hold a food drive. You can borrow a food barrel from The River to collect items at your workplace, for example, or drop off your own boxes and bags full of nonperishable food items, or you can set up a virtual drive online at so donations are shipped directly to the food pantry. 

Of course, financial donations are always welcomed. The River is a big operation and “on average costs about $4,000 to keep running for a day,” said Carpenter, but rest assured that the nonprofit is using donor dollars wisely by keeping administration costs low: “for every dollar donated, 95 cents goes directly to programs and services.” 

Just about each month, The River hits a new record for the meal delivery program (currently around 270 deliveries), so more volunteer drivers are also needed. Depending on a volunteer’s comfort level, there are other opportunities at the food pantry, too. “The River is such an amazing place and it’s rewarding to be a volunteer,” said Gibson (pictured above), who hopes to see you in line at the Birthday Bash! Learn more at

You’re invited! 

Chris Venden with the Mad City Dream Homes team is a sponsor of The River’s Birthday Bash, a celebration of the food pantry’s 15 years of caring, compassion, and community. We hope you’ll attend the fundraising event, which will include live music, raffles, food, drinks, and goodie bags served curbside from 4-6 p.m. Saturday, May 15th at 2201 Darwin Rd, Madison. You can take your meal home to enjoy, or find a local park to eat outside if the weather allows. Tickets are $50 per person, and all proceeds will go toward providing healthy food for the growing number of food-insecure families who use The River’s services due to the ongoing pandemic. To register, visit

“The River’s staff and volunteers like Becca and Lori are so inspiring and are part of the solution to making this a kinder world, and helping all walks of life (children, families, elderly, poor, struggling, etc.) not only survive, but give hope, health, nutrition, comfort, and some peace,” said Chris. 

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