Editor’s note: This piece is one of an occasional series on nonprofit leaders in Milwaukee. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
When Sherrie Tussler took over as executive director at Hunger Task Force more than 20 years ago, things were tough. The organization struggled to meet the needs of the local network of food pantries, running out of food and ending the year in a deficit. Since then, Tussler has seen the task force grow into the state’s anti-hunger leader. She started in nonprofits in 1988, at the Hope House homeless shelter, where she was founding executive director for 10 years. In this interview, Tussler talks about her qualifications, the challenges she faces feeding Milwaukee’s hungry and the future of the task force.
Q: What experiences at Hope House best prepared you for the Hunger Task Force?
A: Hope House was operating at a time when welfare was being reformed in Wisconsin, and more and more people were coming to the shelter who had no income whatsoever. Coming to Hunger Task Force, the problem continues to be hunger, which is another symptom of poverty. I believe that my past experiences helped me to prepare, because we are now in an era of welfare reform once again, and low-income people have no access to the food that they need to be healthy.
Q: When you first started here, what was your main goal?
A: It was really about putting things back together, and making sure that the food bank could meet local need. Then later, through the last 10 years or so, we’ve been able to not only stand on our sea legs, but everything is stable. We have moved forward. Hunger Task Force is unique, it is free, it’s local. It is an independent food bank operated in Milwaukee by people from Milwaukee.
Q: When and why did you change the organization’s name from Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee?
A: When we were established, we were working on childhood hunger issues in Milwaukee. We made the decision about a decade ago to drop the “of Milwaukee” because Hunger Task Force does work on public policy issues involving the food stamp program, school meals and summer meals. When we can change the rules around how those programs are administered, we can make sure that children and families and seniors are fed throughout the state of Wisconsin.
Q: What challenges do you face on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis?
A: Our responsibility is to feed about 50,000 people from Milwaukee every month. We raise all of our operating budget from month to month from scratch — from individual donors, corporations and foundations in Milwaukee. I don’t wake up every morning thinking, “I wonder how I’m going to be able to feed all these people,” but I do sometimes worry that we’re not going to be able to meet the need.
Q: What is your organization trying to do better and how do you evaluate your progress?
A: We’re in a state of continuous improvement because it’s not possible to end hunger by simply feeding people. We have to work on the reasons why people are hungry. Why are they poor? If you think about it, here in the Dairy State, there is enough food to feed everybody. So it really is a problem of access. What we’re trying to do is improve access to food for people who don’t have enough money, through innovations like our farm, and a mobile market where we bring food to food deserts here. We’re constantly thinking about new ways to bring access to food for low-income people in the city.
Q: You mentioned there are a lot of cool things you get to say yes to. Have you ever had to say no when you didn’t want to?
A: In the early days, when we didn’t have enough money, and we didn’t have enough food, it felt like we really didn’t have a voice. One of my board chairs said to me that if we had enough money in the bank, we could say yes all the time. So we’ve worked really hard at fundraising to make sure there is enough money in the bank to say yes. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve had to say, “No, we can’t make a difference. No, we can’t be there. No, we won’t do that.” We are a “yes” organization and have been for about 15 years.