Photo: Janell Torres (far right) with volunteers at the Madison Food Pantry.
“There was this sweet old lady looking for help at the local pantry. I remember seeing her in church week after week, desperate for help.” The empathy Janell Torres felt towards that elderly woman led her to the Madison Food Pantry, two hours northwest of Omaha. Fast forward eight years later and she’s still volunteering at the same pantry, now as the Executive Director.
In the beginning, Janell spent hours observing and visiting other pantries to learn more about food distribution. As she took in the information, her passion to create change took off.
“I started working with Food Bank for the Heartland to ensure the Madison Food Pantry had enough food, and how we could make items last longer. I wanted to make our pantry as successful as possible for the community.”
While many think Janell knows everything about running a food pantry, she always wants to learn more. “My family gives me a hard time because every time we go on vacation and I see a pantry, that’s where I want to go. I want to stop and check out what they’re giving, how much they’re giving, and what their rules are,” says Janell.
She does this because running a food pantry can be a difficult job, especially post-pandemic. “Most of our clients now are people who have never used a food pantry before. On an average weekend before COVID, we’d have 8-10 people on a Saturday morning, now we’re seeing 30-40 people every Saturday.”
Another challenge within the community is language barriers as well as cultural differences. “We have people that speak English, Spanish, Burmese, and Korean. We have people who have never seen anything in a can before, people here on refugee status and individuals who come here with nothing. That’s why food education is important here.”
If Janell has learned anything about food insecurity over the years—it’s that it can happen to anyone. “You can be financially stable and save and have great things going for you—but in one day everything can change,” says Janell.
Which is why she feels strongly about using her pantry to build trust throughout Madison—a city of 2,500. “I want families to feel comfortable coming here to get the help they need. And I want them to know we’re here for anyone and everyone—no matter their circumstance.”
As for the elderly woman who originally inspired her to help—Janell still keeps in touch with her. With tears in her eyes, Janell reflects on the time she spent with her mentor. “Her name is Linda and she’s now in assisted living care. Unfortunately, her memory is failing. I wish I could bring her back to Madison and show her everything we’ve accomplished. She would be so happy.”
Though Janell can’t physically show her how far the pantry has come, she’s inspired by Linda every day. “She struggled for so many years by herself. All she wanted was for someone to help. She’d always say, ‘I prayed and prayed for someone to help me and one day you were just here.’”
Because of that special meeting eight years ago—Linda, Janell, and the entire community of Madison, Nebraska have been forever changed.