Behind the Scenes Changemaker: Madison Community Foundation
By Brennan Nardi | Photos By various 0
For a community known widely as a small city with a big-city food scene, there is a quieter revolution taking place in the local food movement. Building on decades of work around the health benefits of growing and eating locally grown food, the nonprofit sector is harnessing Dane County’s farm-to-fork ethos to tackle some of the most intractable social and economic issues of our time.
Through partnerships and programs across Dane County, Madison Community Foundation (MCF) has supported and sustained these efforts by identifying funding opportunities, connecting donors to them, and facilitating grants to proven and promising nonprofit programs and initiatives.
Nathan Larson, then education director at Community GroundWorks, remembers the first time he met with MCF’s vice president of community impact, Tom Linfield, to talk about funding for Madison Youth Grow Local, a collaborative effort to establish the fledgling Troy Kids’ Garden as a regional resource and leader in children’s gardening programs.
“Back in 2008, Tom asked us the question, ‘What do you want to change?’” recalls Larson. “I wrote the question down on a Post-It note and kept it all these years. It was a great guiding question.”
With a grant from MCF and others, the neighborhood program scaled up to serve 1,250 students on the city’s north side—well above projections—and launched a kid-friendly online encyclopedia of farm and garden produce. In addition to developing a greater appreciation of healthy, local food, children learned how to grow and prepare fruits and vegetables, and community center leaders, teachers and mentors increased their knowledge and skills in facilitating successful school and youth garden programs.
Buoyed by this early funding and impact, Community GroundWorks developed a garden-based professional development course and curriculum for educators and collaborated with the Madison school district and other community partners on a $350,000 initiative to create and grow outdoor classrooms at 15 schools (see "Digging In" below).
“I think it’s so important that there are places in neighborhoods, especially racially diverse, mixed-income neighborhoods, where kids can go and feel a sense of ownership,” said Larson. “These are places where they can be members of a community, places of hope and joy. I think it’s hard to overstate the value of that.”
Since 2001, MCF charitable funds, including the Community Impact Fund, American Girl’s Fund for Children and donor-advised funds, have distributed more than $531,000 in grant awards to Community GroundWorks programs.
“You look back to the roots and MCF played a big role in helping us develop this model that’s not just local but also regional and national,” said Larson, who went on to co-found the National School Garden Network in 2012 and now directs the Wisconsin School Garden Network, supported by Community GroundWorks and the UW Environmental Design Lab. “We’ve been able to have a lot of impact.”
If Tutankhamun “Coach” Assad’s vision is realized, his youth employment project will soon become its own inspiring story of impact.
In 2012, Assad founded the Mellowhood Foundation to work with underserved youth in the Meadowood neighborhood on the city’s southwest side, where 98 percent of residents are living below the poverty level. During the summer, children work in the Meadowood Kid’s Garden in the morning, followed by reading, tutoring and recreational activities in the afternoon. The kids receive a weekly paycheck and open a savings account at Summit Credit Union. By summer’s end, each child has saved $300 for school clothes and supplies.
Mellowhood Youth, as they are known, wear branded T-shirts to cultivate a sense of belonging and pride, while Coach Assad’s tough love approach to the work is displayed in his mission and mantra: “If your ’hood is good, it’s a mellow ’hood.”
“The Mellowhood Foundation has taught me skills I will have to use throughout my life to be a productive member of the community,” said a youth who participated in the 2018 summer program. “I’ve learned how to be a team player and gained knowledge in things I would otherwise have showed no interest in, such as gardening and giving back to the community.”
After a small grant from MCF to subsidize four additional spots in the program, MCF increased its support in 2017 to help Mellowhood launch the Homework Club and Business Incubator Project. The club meets three days a week with support from teachers at nearby schools that share homework assignments and progress reports with retired teacher volunteers recruited by Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, where the program is held. Club members are treated to a healthy dinner and an escort home.
On Saturdays during the school year, Mellowhood Youth meets for four hours every Saturday to plan and develop “Mellowhood Hots” gourmet organic sliced pickles with cucumbers planted and harvested in the summer program. Using curriculum aligned with state standards for youth involved in gardening activities and food entrepreneurship, staff and volunteers monitor the youth, who apply to participate, agree to mandatory attendance, and maintain a B average with no police contact or school behavioral issues. Successful students earn $8.50 per hour for their work and two older youth act as lead interns, earning $150 per week.
“Coach Assad combines heart, discipline and ingenuity to work with kids and their families in the Meadowood area,” said MCF’s Linfield. “His programs build character, provide jobs, decrease poor behavior and police interaction, and foster education and community involvement. This is grassroots educational work at its best.”
While Mellowhood’s local food venture is just getting started, Porchlight’s social innovation project is 13 years strong.
In 2005, with a grant from MCF, Porchlight, whose mission is to reduce homelessness in Dane County, piloted a program to create jobs for people with disabilities, use locally grown food and provide a new revenue stream. In 2007, MCF funded the launch of Porchlight Products, which hired six people with disabilities who were formerly homeless and established relationships with local farms to purchase fruits and vegetables, produce jams and pickled products and sell them to local restaurants.
In 2014, Porchlight launched a campaign to build an east-side campus with 28 housing units, a commercialgrade kitchen for Porchlight Products, a separate kitchen for Madison Area Urban Ministry’s Just Bakery employment training program for returning prisoners, and a maintenance service center for all of its properties.
Three years later, the new location opened with the help of an additional grant from MCF to furnish the apartments and purchase kitchen equipment. Today, Porchlight Products is a thriving vocational rehabilitation program with 25 employees—all Porchlight tenants. Jams, pickled items, and dry baking mixes—12 products in all—are in 16 retail locations and on the menu at 12 local restaurants.
“We hire a lot of veterans and it’s life-changing for them,” says Porchlight Executive Director Karla Thennes. “Many of them have never worked before because they have longterm disabilities—and they love coming to work.”
In 2012, Madison Community Foundation (MCF) awarded a $350,000 grant to build and grow outdoor classrooms in 15 Madison Metropolitan School District public schools throughout the city. Called “Digging In,” the project integrated garden-based learning into the educational practice and culture of schools for more than 8,000 children.
“The idea was to have schools use their outdoor spaces as an integral part of the K-12 experience—as vital as libraries, technology centers and gymnasiums,” said Tom Linfield, MCF’s vice president of community impact. “The research is clear that hands-on, outdoor education strengthens learning and lowers the academic achievement gap.”
Teams from each school—principals, teachers and parents—attended a summer institute at Community GroundWorks, as well as a series of professional development sessions on garden-based education. As a result, five schools created or enhanced outdoor classrooms, five schools implemented sustainability projects, three schools held all-staff professional development sessions, and three schools installed wheelchair accessible paths. MMSD also added a staff member to create outdoor learning lesson plans that met state teaching standards, and more than 50 percent of each school’s teachers integrated the lesson plans into their teaching.
Collaboration among community stakeholders was key to the project’s success. Sustain Dane, Community GroundWorks and UW Extension Dane County worked with the school district to develop a “10 Steps to Creating an Outdoor Classroom” guide, in addition to policies regarding soil testing, washing stations, composting and rain barrels. Ten schools received $1,000 grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for wildlife habitat, and ten schools received additional grants from MCF to create and install art in their gardens.
Digging In’s impact was transformative, as outdoor classrooms continue to educate, inspire and nourish thousands of children each year.