UWM student works to bring fresh food directly to those in need

Often, children don’t get too excited about green vegetables.

But Gianni Vaccaro found that the students she worked with at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee at Siefert School got really excited about salad.

The youngsters often ate three meals a day at the club, said Vaccaro, who was then a film major and coordinating an arts program at the school. “The 5-year-olds would get super stoked about vegetables.”

That experience led Vaccaro, who switched her major to nutritional sciences, to get interested in what she and nutritional sciences faculty call Milwaukee’s food apartheid – areas of the city where fresh fruit and vegetables and other nutritious foods were harder to come by. She found the city had 113 areas in that category.

Delivering by bicycle reduces environmental impact and makes her more approachable, Gianni Vaccaro says. (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

“It was eye opening to me that people very close to me didn’t eat at home while fresh food went into the garbage.”

So, she decided to do something about it. “I’m super passionate about health.  I wanted to find a way to make plant-based foods more accessible,” she said.

Her solution, started in the summer of 2021, is a nonprofit called Sauce Milwaukee.

The goal of Sauce is to deliver fresh food and nutritious meals for free to people in those areas. All of Vaccaro’s deliveries are by bike to keep the environmental impact low and to let her be more approachable.

Fresh food fills a bicycle trailer. (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

Through networking with other organizations, restaurants and grocery stores, Vaccaro has been able to collect good leftover food that had been destined for the dumpster. She prepares and packages the meals — local restaurants have been generous in donating reusable “to-go” containers, she said — loads them up in her bike trailer and sets off to deliver them. She is sometimes joined by other volunteer bikers, which allows Sauce to expand its reach.

Vaccaro accepts requests through the internet — though many of those who need the food don’t have internet access. So, she also posts flyers with a phone number around neighborhoods she’ll be visiting, working in 10 x 10 block grids on each delivery trip. She’s been doing two to three trips a week and hopes to expand that.

Susan Kundrat, clinical professor of nutritional sciences at UWM, says Vaccaro’s effort is important.

“Students like Gianni bring much needed awareness, energy and enthusiasm around hunger issues to our community,” Kundrat said. “Her groundbreaking work with Sauce Milwaukee fills a very important need – bringing food directly to those who may not be able to get to a food pantry or a meal site to secure sustenance. This kind of innovative, creative thinking is just what we are looking for in our students at UW-Milwaukee.”

With a bumper crop of donated pears, Sauce Milwaukee made hand pies with pears, walnuts and cinnamon last fall. (Photo courtesy of Gianni Vaccaro)

Having established Sauce Milwaukee as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Vaccaro is able to accept financial donations through a GoFundMe page.

Vaccaro said food stamps and food pantries have helped alleviate hunger, but many of those she is serving can’t get to pantries or aren’t able to carry quantities of food home because of their lack of transportation.

“We want to remove as many obstacles as possible to put the food in their hands directly.”

In addition to being a student in nutritional sciences, Vaccaro now teaches social and emotional development to grades K-8 at both Northwest Catholic and Milwaukee Academy of Science. She plans to graduate from UWM in the fall of 2023.

Part of her mission is just getting to know people and build relationships. Delivering and visiting neighborhoods in person has helped her do that. Over the summer of 2021, she stopped at a day care center where some of the caregivers were outside, for example. She offered them the free meals. Some took them, some didn’t. “People are good about only taking what they need.”

Vaccaro started a community garden to help increase the fresh produce available. She’s also joined with other hunger organizations in efforts like a shared kitchen where she can prepare food. “We are all working together to fight this hunger battle.”

One of her organization’s goals is to use healthy food to fight the many diseases and problems related to inadequate nutrition, said Vaccaro.  Sauce Milwaukee’s website sets out the goal: “We are determined to bring healthy foods to everyone in need, because all people deserve to eat whole foods without physical, financial or mental stresses involved.”

Vaccaro’s mission fits with UWM’s – its nutritional sciences department is involved in the efforts to battle hunger. Students in nutritional sciences logged about 500 hours of service learning over one recent semester in three courses, all focused on food security in the Milwaukee area, Kundrat said. The primary sites are the UWM Food Center and Pantry, the Kinship Community Food Center, The Gathering and Friedens Food Pantries.

“I believe students learn best by blending what they learn from books and in class with experiencing real-life situations, all the while making an important positive contribution to their communities,” Kundrat said. “Service-learning and volunteering provide these important opportunities while also teaching empathy.”

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