Sherrie Tussler, retiring head of Hunger Task Force, reflects on wins, losses, and why we’ve normalized poverty

Jun 3, 2024

Sherrie Tussler, a fierce and tireless advocate for the poor and hungry, has led Milwaukee’s Hunger Task Force food bank since 1997.

Wednesday, on her 65th birthday, she will step aside from the organization she helped grow into a powerhouse. In retiring, Tussler trades life as one of Milwaukee’s most prominent nonprofit executives — she was at the helm of everything from Thanksgiving turkey donation drives to news conferences condemning injustices — for home remodeling projects, walks with her dog and time with her two children.

Before joining Hunger Task Force as its chief executive officer, Tussler led Milwaukee’s Hope House homeless shelter and worked as a crisis and sexual assault counselor. Over her career, she gained a reputation as someone unafraid to call out people in power for failures and inefficiencies, and as someone who thought creatively to solve problems. She brought to the forefront the city’s most marginalized and invisible residents, and convinced donors to care about them.

It’s an impressive career, but it wasn’t what she dreamed of doing as a young person. Tussler wanted to be a high school art teacher. She laughs now thinking about it.

“I probably would’ve lasted as an art teacher for a few years before I needed to be the principal,” she said. “Then, I don’t think I was really in touch with my desire to be in a leadership role.”

In an interview with the Journal Sentinel, she said she is proudest of the 208-acre Hunger Task Force Farm in Franklin, where a half million pounds of fruits and vegetables are grown each year to supplement the food bank’s offerings.

Associate director Matt King will take over as CEO, and Tussler will be on hand to advise as needed. But she’s looking forward to doing the “Sherrie stuff” she didn’t have time for during the pandemic, “before I get too old to have fun.”

“The timing is really right,” she said. “There’s enough money in the bank here at the Hunger Task Force. We’ve had such strong relationships with donors. Our volunteers are all back and working real hard. Everything’s in place. And so it should be reasonably easy to continue this tradition.”

Tussler remains proud of the fact that Hunger Task Force is “free and local.” That is, it’s independent and no one has to pay for donations of food, unlike at other food banks nationally, which often provide food to pantries at a cost. It’s thanks to the generosity of donors that the nonprofit could continue that model, Tussler said.

“Together, we made a huge difference here in Milwaukee, and we should and can continue to do so,” she said.

Photo by: Jovanny Hernandez, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Tussler’s responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

What’s something you never expected to learn when you started at Hunger Task Force?

I didn’t understand how powerful food is. Sometimes now I tell people that food is power. Some people have food, and some people don’t, and it literally is an issue of inequity, and people should consider the circumstances under which we all live — in a place where we would allow some people to go without a basic need like food while we ourselves eat very, very well.

I knew that Hunger Task Force was an advocacy organization, and I wanted to be an advocate and work to end hunger. But I didn’t realize what an uphill battle it really was going to be, and what kind of systems changes would be required to just allow kids to have access to three meals a day. It’s a lot more complicated than just collecting food and giving it to people.

How has the landscape of poverty and hunger changed in Milwaukee since 1997?

It’s interesting you would bring it up. But I would think that we would probably go further back than ’97. I graduated high school in 1977, and you didn’t have to have a degree to get a job that paid a living wage. If you graduated straight from high school and got a job — mostly in manufacturing — you would make not just a living wage, but you could buy a house, you could get a car, you could have children without worry. All with a high school diploma.

And in the early 1980s, things just started to change. We had a horrible recession. We were struggling like none other. And a lot of manufacturing jobs left not just our area, but our country. And those living wage jobs were gone, and suddenly people were homeless and hungry. That was when we created sort of the landscape of food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters that we consider to be normal today. They were not normal. There wasn’t a job for a food bank director when I graduated high school.

Do you think the issue of hunger has only gotten worse over your career?

I think it’s hard to characterize that. Is it worse? Is it better? Is it the same? I would say we have grown to accept that in North America people can go without adequate food and shelter. That was an affront to our thinking when I was in high school. There was the Milwaukee Rescue Mission, there was the Sojourner Truth hubs for victims of domestic violence, but there weren’t a half dozen shelters. People weren’t sleeping in park-and-rides or underneath bridges. That just wasn’t acceptable. And now I think that people walk around every day thinking there’s always going to be some homeless or hungry people somewhere.

What has been your strategy in getting people in power to care about hunger and take action?

I always think of myself as the person in the room that, maybe, people in power failed to invite. If we’re talking about homelessness, we should talk to homeless people. If we want to talk about childhood hunger, we should sit in a room full of children. As decision-makers and leaders, we often just have these conversations above or outside of a space where the people who are impacted are involved.

Sometimes I’m in a room, and I’m the only person who’s going to speak out about what is wrong on behalf of the people that they didn’t invite. So it can be difficult at times, but you just have to stand up and say, ‘Here’s the deal, people: This is what you haven’t thought of.’ Or, maybe, ‘We should stop making decisions that are not including the people that need to be included.’

How have you remained in touch with the people experiencing hunger and homelessness as a leader?

You just go out. I always say, if you want to know something, go look at it, go see it. So you go to a homeless shelter, you go underneath the bridge, you go to the children’s classroom, you go to the distribution of food for the seniors. You’ve just got to go see stuff. I don’t think we’d have near the ills that we have in our community if more people just took the time to go look at things themselves and formed their own opinions.

You’ve dedicated your life to those on the margins. What fuels you? What makes you get up every day to do this work?

I think that I’ve always had a sense of justice and purpose. My father was a very strong-willed person who dedicated his life to service. He was not only a letter carrier, but he was the fire chief in our small town of Sturtevant. There was always something that we were involved with in the community. I think I had a sense of being involved with people.

One of my early jobs was first as a crisis counselor, and then later as a sexual assault counselor. (Once,) the crisis counselor’s pager went off because a sexual assault counselor’s pager didn’t work, and I got called in to work in an emergency room. I had never seen or done anything like that before, but I was on call, so I went in. The business of empowering women inside of that emergency room who have been sexually assaulted, giving them back the power to say yes or no — someone had just taken away their consent and injured them in ways I can’t even describe. And then you would say, ‘What do you want to do? What do you need, and how can I help you get there? Let’s let’s sit down and just talk.’

I did that work for about eight years. That experience in particular really radicalized my thinking around what it means to be victimized, and how taking away someone else’s consent in order to be in control over them is just horrifically wrong. Then apply that to things like homelessness or hunger, and you realize that people don’t want to be homeless, people don’t want to be hungry. You have to work with them, and through them, to get them to realize their strength, their worth and their rights.

Which change over your career are you the proudest to have seen through?

I think it’s probably the (Hunger Task Force) Farm. It’s amazing. It’s beautiful. It’s 208 acres of gorgeous farmland, and we grow food for people in need, and we give it to them for free. So that project all by itself was just sort of a happenstance and an opportunity.

It was at a point in my career where we had enough resources where we could say yes to things instead of planning and grant writing and wondering if we’d ever get there. There’s so many nonprofits with great ideas, but they don’t have the juice to get it done. We were just at that point where we had enough juice to get it done. And it was so cool to be able to say yes.

When you bring that food to a food pantry, or a food distribution site, people are like, ‘Wow, this is so gorgeous. Thank you for growing this food for me.’

Now in 2024, do you see lingering effects of the pandemic on the people you serve?

During COVID, people on FoodShare were lucky because they got additional emergency benefits given to them. If you think about how many people went on FoodShare during COVID, everybody suddenly knew someone on FoodShare. Maybe your brother lost his job. Maybe it was your coworker, maybe it was your child who finally got help buying food. And they not only got help, but they got amazing help — so much help that our food pantry numbers actually decreased. People took a vacation from poverty, and they could go to the grocery store and buy their own food.

So now the the fallout from that is, lots of people got jobs and got better and don’t need FoodShare anymore —Yay. But a lot of people who got that assistance — people who are differently abled, older adults, families with children who still need that aid — are now back to being dependent on a food pantry because the aid was pulled back to its previous levels (as low as $23 dollars a month). So you spend a lot of time explaining to people why the government doesn’t make any sense.

Twenty-three dollars a month, just imagine what that’s going to buy you. Especially for older adults and the differently abled, their incomes are set. They get a cost of living increase, and they get their $23 in FoodShare. But housing costs keep going up. Food costs are out of control. It’s got to be near-impossible to make it.

Rehabbing houses is a hobby of yours, and you just sold the 1890 Merrill Park house you remodeled. What’s next for you on that front?

A year ago about this time, I went down to Racine. I was going to the beach. I’m driving down the street, and there’s a yard where they haven’t mowed the grass, but it’s early June. And I thought, that house is for sale! So I bought that house.

And it was awful. It was disgusting and gross and dirty inside, and funky, 1940s, not-my-style kind of house. I bought it back in August and we gutted it, and we’re putting it back together. So that’s where I live now. In about two weeks I’m going to start working on my patio out front.

When you said you were retiring, what did your two kids say?

‘It’s about time.’ My youngest has been telling me to retire for years. I gave up a lot of kid time, mom time. It’s hard working at a place that is so intense at the holidays. November’s a really hard month here. The kids, they see their mom working that hard, and coming home late — they’re done with it, I’m done with it.

What do you hope your legacy is in Milwaukee?

I would say that it should be one of hard work, honesty, perseverance. Those things pay off. Compassion for people. The ability to look someone in their eyes and bring a sense of dignity and comfort to them is something we should all do with each other. ‘She worked hard. She did the right thing.’

In the months since you announced you were retiring, have people reached out?

There have been complete strangers that have written cards to me. It’s really cool. And they tell me something that I didn’t know about them, that at some point I touched them. I saved a whole pack of them because I thought, when I get bored, I’ll read all these interesting cards from strangers.



Hunger Task Force is Milwaukee’s Free & Local food bank and Wisconsin’s anti-hunger leader. The organization’s core values are Dignity, Justice, Equity, Compassion and Stewardship. Hunger Task Force feeds people today by providing healthy and culturally appropriate food to hungry children, families and seniors in the community absolutely free of charge. Hunger Task Force also works to end future hunger by advocating for strong public policies and nutrition programs at the local, state and federal level.