Second Harvest pt. 2: Growing Community
By Maggie Messitt | Photo By John Kuehl 1
Editor’s Note: This article is an online-only accompaniment to “Second Harvest: Feeding Our Neighbors” by Maggie Messitt.
Laura Lawson, author of City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America, believes the impact of community gardens has reach far beyond hunger relief: community gardens “are shown to improve food habits, increase community engagement, act as a catalyst for economic development ventures, and reclaim urban lands for agriculture.”
Two years ago, the Middleton Outreach Ministry (MOM), Dane County’s third largest food pantry, started a small community garden to grow produce for the pantry and establish a community of like-minded growers. In year two, the organization decided to create something new—“a community garden with a twist.” Volunteers were eager to establish a garden where clients and volunteer mentors would work cooperatively in a 21-plot community garden across the street from the pantry.
Mentor volunteers included UW agronomists, professors and several master gardeners. In 2011, six clients joined the garden and committed to orientation, to weekly time on their plot and with other gardeners, and to the growing season. In exchange for use of the land and equipment, volunteer and mentor gardeners would donate 50 percent of their crop to the food pantry, and client gardeners retained 100 percent of their harvest. Together, they produced close to 5,000 pounds of produce.
While the focus this year was teaching, inside the plots gardeners didn’t know who was or wasn’t a pantry client. Students in the mentor program had diverse backgrounds, circumstances, and gardening experiences. “It’s really fun to see kids out in the garden working with their parents. The garden is a great equalizer—no one is treated differently because of their means or current life situation,” said Cheri Farha, manager of the MOM community garden and food pantry.
“I’d always wanted to join a community garden, but there were fees involved,” said Jessica, a first year client-gardener. “It’s empowering to know that you can do something on your own, and not to be beholden to the grocery store or the food pantry. I think everyone should be able to take part in community gardening. It allows you to grow, be part of a community, think about food and where it comes from.”
Jessica’s garden supplemented pantry groceries for her husband, her pregnant sister, and herself. “Weekly lettuce and green beans throughout,” said Jessica. “The garden was prolific.” Her harvests were often so large, she would trade with other gardeners and bring excess over to the pantry. And with more than 100 pounds of tomatoes, Jessica has learned how to can. But while Jessica respected the process of growing her own food and recognized the importance of people doing so, she could also see that, as an urban resident, the self-sustainability that many hope for wasn’t an attainable goal.
Gretchen Mead of Milwaukee’s Victory Garden Movement agrees with Jessica. “I might suggest that self-sufficiency is not truly the goal of growing one's own food. Rather, it is a means for creating a more connected and respectful community that lives within the ecological framework that we are part of. Growing food reconnects us with the cycle of life, reintegrating human and food ecology. It creates a surplus of produce that we then naturally add to our diets, creating healthy meals. It also gives us a reason to get outside and work with our neighbors... ‘Hey, if you plant an apple tree, I’ll plant a pear.’”
Mead, much like Lawson and the MOM gardeners, looks to each garden as a means to connect with our neighbors and the food we eat. “The message is clear,” said Mead. “Get your friends and neighbors together and change our food system for the better through growing you own food. This is a grassroots movement. Move grass. Grow food.”
Visit the Middleton Outreach Ministry’s website to apply to volunteer with the pantry or garden, or call Cheri Farha at 608-836-7338.