When Andy Czerkas, 64, opened The River Food Pantry in Madison, Wisconsin, five years ago, he knew it would address a real need. But he didn't expect that need to grow so fast — the number of families the pantry feeds is up 10 percent just since last year. Czerkas and his wife, Jenny, 53, had for years worked through their church, organizing community dinners, but in 2005 they decided to "do something a little bit bigger." Today the pantry distributes 25,000 pounds of food each week to up to 600 families. This isn't the typical food bank: Clients "shop" among the aisles as if they were in a grocery store, pick out donated clothing, and eat hot meals served every Friday night on tables set with flowers, tablecloths, and silver ware. "It's very difficult for someone who's never needed help to come in and admit they need it. We try to take the sting out," says Czerkas. "We can't fix things for people. We talk to them, we give them food. Sometimes that's enough, even if it's just for a little while."
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