Farmer-organized cheese donation
helps fill many local food pantries
"This is wonderful," said Jean Fisher, as she helped open boxes of cheese donated to the Prairie du Sac food pantry last week. "Cheese is something we don't get a lot of so it's something we're very grateful for."
She and Wilbur Luetscher grabbed big boxes of Colby-Jack and Monterrey Jack that were donated to their food pantry by local resident Ron Statz, who as operations manager for Scenic Central Milk Producers dairy cooperative works with several of the farmers who have been organizing, raising money and putting dairy products into food pantries for a number of years.
Statz, who lives in the Sauk-Prairie area said when he heard about the program, he wanted to be part of it. The cooperative isn't officially involved, he added, but many of the participants happen to be members.
The project is the brainchild of Ed Chitwood, a Blue River dairy farmer who milks about 30 cows and sits on the board of directors for Scenic Central. In the years since he started this project, he has gotten many of his friends, neighbors and other co-op members involved.
The Richland County dairyman has been involved for many years in programs to try to raise the price farmers get paid for their milk and at one time there was talk of dairy farmers dumping their milk to try to reduce supply.
"In 2000 the milk price was in the toilet and I thought it sounded really stupid to dump milk," he recalled. He thought it would be a much better idea to get milk or cheese into the hands of people who could really use it and appreciate it.
He found farmers to donate milk, a trucker to donate the hauling and a cheese maker to donate the processing of the milk into cheese. That first attempt 13 years ago was how this "milk into cheese" food pantry project began.
A local radio station joined in, helping spread the word and a local church youth group donated their time to cut and wrap the cheese into family-sized portions.
"A friend of mine with an auto body shop heard about it and wondered if he could buy some milk from a farmer and donate it. A lot of people are interested in helping others and it has grown from there," Chitwood said. "Each year a new thing would come up. It has been an adventure."
The idea has been that farmers could donate their milk and then get the cheese back to make their donations to their own communities, so as more farmers and others got involved in the program it has spread to a number of communities.
Meister Cheese in Muscoda has been involved and helped by making some of the cheese Statz donated last week. Scenic Central's general manager Ken Boll has been involved from the outset and this year donated cheese in Baraboo.
Arena Cheese donated the Colby-Jack that Statz brought to his local food pantry.
Chitwood said seven food pantries in Iowa, Grant, Richland and Sauk counties have benefited from the donations of farmers and other non-farmers who have joined in on the program.
This year 26,000 pounds of milk was donated, which yielded 2,600 pounds of cheese, he said. That is estimated to benefit hundreds of families who rely on those food pantries.
As this program began to get rolling Chitwood discovered another need - meat. He found that if a farmer donated a cow, Kickapoo Locker plant would waive the butchering charge.
So far, three cows and a half a hog have been donated. Local Presbyterian church ladies, FFA members and Lions club members have helped with that project, he said.
Five years ago Chitwood began holding a hay ride at his farm in the fall to give people a chance to be out on a farm but also to raise money for this project.
"My wife and sister baked cookies and made coffee and we'd take people out on the gravel roads that are pretty quiet around our place."
Most years they would raise $500 with the hayrides; this year they raised $1,000.
Chitwood's fundraising has spread to other areas. He has organized a bowling tournament in the spring that also raises money for the food pantry project and makes people aware of the need in the community.
Statz said the cheese factories make the higher-moisture cheeses from the donated cheese so they will be able to get the greatest amount of cheese from the milk that is donated. These are also mild cheeses so they will appeal to more people than some other cheese flavors might, he added.
Luetscher said volunteers at their food pantry would come in to help cut and wrap Statz's 110 pounds of donated cheese into smaller portions, suitable for a family.
He and Fisher said their pantry serves 40-50 families and is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays. "That number of families is a lot of people actually," Fisher said. "It has been going up gradually.
"But we are very fortunate here," she said. "It is very well supported by the community."
The local pantry works with Second Harvest food bank and is able to buy a lot of food locally, she added.
For now at least, they won't need to look very far to find several kinds of cheese for their food pantry clients and that's just what Ed Chitwood was hoping for.