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Hmong American Friendship Association helps thousands of families each year through Milwaukee food pantry

April 10, 2024

MILWAUKEE (CBS58) — Dressed in a suit and tie on Wednesday, Lo Neng Kiatoukaysy proudly stands inside of the Hmong American Friendship Association (HAFA) on W. Vliet St.

The nonprofit, founded several decades ago, works to “improve the quality of life for Asian families” in the greater Milwaukee area.

Kiatoukaysy has served as the organization’s executive director for nearly 30 years.

“I myself am a refugee,” Kiatoukaysy told CBS 58’s Ellie Nakamoto-White. “My family and I remember coming to America. We were poor.”

Kiatoukaysy recalled nights when he was younger, going without much to eat.

“I remember dreaming and biting into my hand thinking it was a piece of chicken,” Kiatoukaysy said.

That’s why he made it his life’s mission to give back to those in need.

One of the ways? By helping with HAFA’s food pantry which teamed up with Hunger Task Force.

Typically, it serves around 8,000 families. But during the pandemic, Kiatoukaysy said that number jumped up to around 47,000.

According to a news release, HAFA distributed more than 134,000 pounds of fresh produce in 2023.

So far this year, they’ve served nearly 2,000 individuals.

Shoppers can come in, grab a cart, and pick up to 15 items at a time of certain canned and fresh goods, meats, and grains to put in a box to go.

That operation model helps to “preserve dignity” by letting clients decide what they want to eat, the release said.

“It helps us to see what people want to take and what they do take and that way we don’t have any food waste,” said William Xiong, HAFA’s food pantry coordinator.

Xiong also knows how impactful an open food pantry can be, after working for years as a volunteer at the association.

“As a little child, my parents have always brought me to HAFA,” Xiong said. “HAFA has been providing me not only with after school programs, but they also help me with snacks and food I’m assuming are also from the food pantry as well, which also helps out with me as a kid growing up.”

Xiong added that it’s a “good feeling” to give back with his team.

He also helped work with Hunger Task Force coordinators who surveyed pantry goers to learn which cultural foods they wanted on the pantry’s shelves.

“Our community really wanted Baby Bok Choy and that was one thing that we were able to work with Hunger Task Force,” Xiong said. “They’ve grown it on their farm to produce it to our community.”

The food pantry is open on Tuesdays and Fridays from noon until 3 p.m. and is eligible for anyone of all ethnicities and genders living in area zip codes 53205, 53208, and 53218.