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Andy Czerkas — AARP Foundation 2011 Hunger Hero

The River overflows with love, caring and food

Andy Czerkas, AARP The Magazine Inspire Awards 2012 Honoree

— Photo by: Chris Crisman

En español | Andy Czerkas was voted winner of AARP Foundation's Hunger Hero contest. Andy's charity, The River Food Pantry, received a $15,000 donation from AARP Foundation to help that organization continue its work to end senior hunger. In addition, he received an AARP The Magazine Inspire Award in December 2011, and was featured in the December/January 2012 issue of AARP The Magazine.

For six years, Andy Czerkas, and his wife, Jenny, volunteered at low-income housing developments on the north side of Madison, Wisc., making Friday night dinners and organizing holiday and back-to-school parties. But they knew that more was needed. In January 2007 they opened the doors of The River Food Pantry, a.k.a. "The River." By the end of 2007, they had served 7,135 Dane County households.

In early 2008, the economy began to decline, and every year since the number of people The River serves has risen. In 2010 alone, more than 25,357 households sought help from The River — 30 percent of them headed by people who had jobs that didn't pay enough to cover their families' basic needs.

Today The River is Dane County's busiest food pantry, distributing more than 25,000 pounds of food a week to the people it serves — 20 percent of them age 65 or older. Its services have expanded, too. There's still a weekly Friday night dinner (and a new one on Tuesday), where the bouquet-sporting tables are set with real dishes and silverware. Pantry clients shop the aisles not just for food, but for donated clothing. Volunteer nurses conduct blood pressure, blood sugar and other health screenings, and other volunteers perform eligibility screenings for state and federal benefit programs like SNAP — known as FoodShare in Wisconsin.

Although Andy volunteers 30 hours a week at The River, he still has his day job teaching information technology at a nearby technical college. Hundreds of volunteers make up the difference, donating their time weekly to stock shelves, cook and serve meals, sort clothes or guide clients through the pantry. While many come from area churches, colleges and community organizations, 25 percent are pantry users themselves.

"We don't want any walls between servers and those served," Andy says. "At The River, we work to build people's confidence and dignity. Coming to a food pantry for assistance can be a difficult and even humbling experience. Providing validation and encouragement to our clients is another kind of nourishment — and just as important as helping them take care of themselves and their families."

In the United States, no one of any age should go hungry. Yet today, 9 million older Americans face the threat of hunger and are forced to skip meals, buy poor quality food, or choose between paying for prescription medications or their next meal. Through Drive to End Hunger, a national effort to help end the problem of senior hunger in America, AARP Foundation is working to change this — to have a lasting impact in the struggle against senior hunger.