Feature Stories Winter 2011 Issue

Second Harvest: Feeding Our Neighbors

By Maggie Messitt | Illustration By Bambi Edlund 0

The first frost had come and gone. Madison’s neighborhood farmers markets had started their transition indoors. And backyard, sidewalk and community gardeners were clearing their patches of soil, preparing for the winter. But outside the beltline, down Fish Hatchery Road and into the town of Oregon, two acres of land—by the grace of unpredictable weather patterns—had been spared. Hershberger Garden, one of three Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens, still had a few days of harvest remaining. And like on most mornings, volunteers were bent over rows of eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and cabbage.

In 1990, an Oscar Mayer retiree by the name of Ken Witte began collecting surplus from area food stores and bakeries for delivery to local food pantries. He soon had farmers market vendors donating their surplus at the end of each market day. While Ken was generating, on good weeks, one ton of food, his donations were minute compared to the need throughout Dane County.

In the winter of 1999, Ken joined together with Emmett Schulte, newly retired from the Department of Soil Science at UW Madison, to establish the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens. Private land was secured, volunteers were recruited, produce was grown, and before they knew it, crops were delivered to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Southern Wisconsin and the Community Action Coalition (CAC). These organizations, in turn, delivered to food pantries. At the time, the U.S. poverty rate was 12.7 percent, there was a 4.5 percent unemployment rate, and more than 34 million Americans were facing food insecurity.

Today, twelve years later, 48.8 million Americans live in food insecure households. While Wisconsin residents are better off economically than the nation on the whole, 750,000 Wisconsinites live in poverty today. When Ken and Emmett first started growing produce for food pantries, that number was 466,000.

With food insecurity at its highest rate in decades, food relief organizations and the power of volunteerism has become more critical than ever. While Emmett and Ken have passed their administrative torches to site-coordinators Tom Parslow and Phil Cox, a dedicated team of senior volunteers continues to sow, weed and harvest three food pantry gardens, each named after their generous land owners: Malmquist, Lacy, and Hershberger. The food pantry gardens, totaling four acres, are responsible for more than 100,000 pounds of produce provided to pantries annually.

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