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Linda Joranger likes to get out first thing in the morning to harvest vegetables at the Middleton Outreach Ministry food pantry garden. “That way, when the food pantry opens, there’s fresh produce right there,” says Joranger, a laid-off state worker who turned to the food pantry — and the pantry garden to feed her sense of purpose — while looking for work this summer.

“This is a way of giving back,” says Joranger, who estimates she single-handedly harvested 130 pounds of produce from the first-year garden on borrowed property in a business park on the edge of town.  

That bounty is part of some 46 tons of locally grown donated produce flowing this season to food pantries as enthusiasm and support for “eat local” initiatives are burgeoning. “We’re collecting more produce than we’ve ever seen. It’s been a great harvest,” says Chris Brockel, Food and Gardens Division manager for Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin Inc., a nonprofit agency that supplies pantries and administers community gardens in Dane County as part of its anti-poverty programs.

A $300,000 grant from the Madison Community Foundation in 2008 allowed Community Action Coalition to fund major equipment acquisitions and other improvements to local food pantries over the past two years. This year, the agency focused on food pantry gardens, awarding $20,290 worth of Share Your Harvest Garden Grants to 22 community gardens that donate some or all of their produce to local pantries.

They got a lot of bok choy for the buck.

The agency, which also collects for pantries from local farmers’ markets, farms, community-supported farms and backyard gardeners, gleaned a whopping 92,000 pounds of produce from all sources as of the end of August. That’s compared with about 75,000 pounds at the end of August 2009, an increase Brockel attributes to a newly energized, broad-based food pantry garden effort.

He credits the faltering economy with stimulating interest in local growing projects, and says that “in our area, people also understand the value of a local, sustainable food system and how people coming together for that can make a real difference.”

Madison has been bitten hard by the “eat local” bug — from community gardens and urban agriculture programs, to community-supported agriculture and other programs that market local products. 

The enthusiasm is national. In Milwaukee, the nonprofit organization Growing Power is exporting its successful blueprint for intense urban agriculture to Chicago.  In Detroit, community gardens are filling city lots made vacant by a staggering local economic crisis, and a business proposal to convert 100 acres of city-owned land to a commercial farm is moving forward. And let’s not forget the new vegetable garden on the grounds of the White House.

The passion for locally grown food is part of a smorgasbord of food movements — from organic farming to school lunch reform and farmland preservation — that has appeared on the national menu in the last few years. They reflect a growing realization of the high social, environmental, health and gastronomic costs of industrial food production, writes Michael Pollan, the journalist and movement guru whose appearance last year at the Kohl Center drew thousands of fans and scores of critics who turned out in defense of traditional farming. The “eat local” movement is finally sending down grass roots, he says. “Stung by charges of elitism, activists for sustainable farming are starting to take seriously the problem of hunger and poverty,” Pollan wrote in June in the New York Review of Books. “They’re promoting schemes and policies to make fresh local food more accessible to the poor.”

In Dane County, the effort to grow our way past hunger includes pantry gardens, donations from community plots and backyard gardens, and urban agriculture programs.

Advocates say support is strong, but education on how to produce and use fresh vegetables is crucial.

“I think we hit the zeitgeist with this,” Tom Linfield, Madison Community Foundation vice president for grant-making and community initiatives, says of the investment in food pantry gardens. Inspired perhaps by that White House garden, “there’s a bit of the ‘victory garden’ idea from the World War II era that everyone should plant a garden,” he says. In Madison, that means gardens all over the place.

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In the city and outlying communities, the Community Action Coalition grants seeded pantry gardens to help feed financially strapped families, and for other reasons as rich and varied as heirloom tomatoes.

In a troubled section of Madison’s southwest side, front yards in a stretch along Russett Road were planted this year with fruit trees, vegetables and flowers as part of a broader effort to do nothing less than transform the neighborhood. The gardens are out front so everyone can see them, says Kim Neuschel, a nurse with Public Health Madison & Dane County. “It was very purposeful; beauty is an important goal.”

Planted in a volunteer blitz and maintained by youths from a local social service agency, the gardens are meant to build community and change the feel of a street that has been prone to outbursts of violence. The garden vegetables are donated to the food pantry at nearby Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, and also are there for the taking straight from the plants. “Everybody on the block picks whatever they’d like,” says Ray McKnight, who volunteers to supervise the kids who harvest and clean the plots. The evident care lavished on the gardens has helped “mellow out” the neighborhood, he says. Centered now on the lawn of the apartment building that houses the local county social services office, the front-yard garden project may expand throughout the neighborhood in future years. “Potentially, we’d like to create a garden market” where residents would sell their front-yard bounty, Neuschel says.

For the members of Blackhawk Church on Madison’s far west side, gardening for the needy is a ministry, says volunteer coordinator Alex Butz. “Jesus said, ‘Feed the hungry.’ That’s part of our mission,” he says. Twenty or more church members come out weekly to work the church’s two-acre tract, growing tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, broccoli, greens, onions, lettuce, green beans, cilantro, squash, cucumbers, melons and sweet corn. The first-year garden yielded more than two tons of produce in July alone, says Butz, who grew up on a farm. The garden received $1,800 from Community Action Coalition but also gets support from congregation members, including the loan of the land. “We make things work,” Butz says.

Meanwhile, students from Globe University on Madison’s east side are being challenged to develop critical thinking skills as they cultivate a 40-foot-by-40-foot garden plot at nearby Reindahl Park. “We want students to understand food issues while they help people in Madison get quality, nutritious food options,” says Gabriel Neely, service learning coordinator at the private school. Some students knew about food pantries because they’ve used them after losing jobs, while the territory was foreign to others. Working in the garden made both groups confront issues on food availability. “It’s a great equalizer,” Neely says.

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It’s taken a generation to grow the Madison area’s capacity for fresh pantry food. Since the early 1980s, Community Action Coalition has been helping to site and fund community gardens, and a decade later, there were 13 of them in the Madison area. City officials formed a committee to help plan their development and manage their operation. Throughout the 1990s, a new emphasis on offering more healthful fresh produce in food pantries emerged, increasing the demand for it. By 1999, two stalwart food pantry volunteers had started the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardening Project to provide it. For a decade, Ken Witte and Emmett Schulte’s efforts provided much of the locally grown fresh produce for pantries. Eventually, efforts they led in a half-dozen gardens around the area were generating 100,000 pounds of produce each year.

As the men approached retirement two years ago, Community Action Coalition brainstormed with the Madison Community Foundation on how to grow a more broadly based fresh food supply network in the area. Pantries upgraded their capacity to receive and store fresh produce with new equipment, new gardens sprang up, and existing gardens devised ways to encourage gardeners to share.

That sharing was the goal at Eagle Heights Community Gardens on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, which used its $1,166 food pantry garden grant to build sheltered stands for collection bins. People are using them. About six 25-gallon bins of produce are being sent each week to St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry, says Eric Domyan, a graduate student who coordinates the Plant a Row for the Hungry program at Eagle Heights.

Not only community gardeners, but backyard gardeners donate to pantries, showing up with a few melons or 50 pounds of spinach from a bumper crop, says Michelle Shively of Community Action Coalition. This season has been so bountiful that one gardener called a few weeks back, saying he couldn’t find a pantry able to take his produce. Most pantries are accepting produce donations, says Shively, an Americorps VISTA worker who directs gardeners to the pantries. They get a big kick out of giving, she says. “It gives them satisfaction to give back to the community through something that’s a hobby.”

There’s a growing expectation at some community gardens that some of the yield be set aside for food pantries, says Ralph Johnson, who has been gardening for 15 years at Atwood Community Gardens on the east side and organizing a harvest share event for the Fritz Food Pantry at the nearby Goodman Community Center for the past two. “It’s something we want to see more and more of,” he says. “If you’re doing a garden, you ought to be contributing.”

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Fresh vegetables at food pantries might once have been considered a lucky bonus, but many pantry users today expect some sort of produce, and know which pantries can be counted on for a high-quality supply.

“Folks love fresh produce,” says Ernie Stetenfeld, director of community relations for St. Vincent de Paul, which relies on Lacy Garden in Fitchburg to provide a steady supply of fresh produce to its pantry. It’s one reason users line up to get in early, he says.    

Joyce Haywood was in line before the doors opened one recent morning at the St. Vincent Food Pantry on Fish Hatchery Road.  And fresh vegetables are one thing she looks for.  “If I get ’em, I cook ’em,” says Haywood, who put an unfamiliar variety of squash from a local pantry to good use this summer, and even has her 8-year-old granddaughter, Desire Lenoir, looking forward to fried green tomatoes and her favorite cucumbers. Haywood also has supplemented her household’s supply of vegetables by growing some — tomatoes, cucumbers, collard greens — out in front of her Allied Drive apartment building with the help of a neighbor.

It was food pantry users’ appreciation for fresh produce that inspired Middleton Outreach Ministry to plant the garden that is making such a big impression this year, says Cheri Farha, manager of the distribution center. “They just can’t believe it,” she says of the stores of produce replenished daily from the garden just across the street. It is the experiences like that of volunteer Joranger, Allied Drive resident Haywood and others growing their own food that are inspiring a plan to take the garden further. Volunteer coordinator Patty Zehl is developing a program proposed for debut next year that would mentor pantry users in gardening techniques as they work the food pantry garden and earn free use of a community garden plot, plus seeds, plants and tools for the following season. “It’s the idea of teaching a man to fish versus just giving him a fish,” Zehl says.

Robert Pierce, a homegrown Madison food entrepreneur who manages the South Madison Farmers’ Market, agrees that education about how to grow and prepare fresh food is critical to bringing a healthy diet to low-income people. He figures it is unfamiliarity with buying fresh produce that has led to a faltering reception for a Market Basket program offered through Growing Power, the Milwaukee-based nonprofit dedicated to healthy, affordable food production and education. The program, delivering a weekly low-cost portion of fresh fruits and vegetables on a pay-as-you-go basis, has struggled to attract enough steady customers here.

“Poor people want a big bang for their dollar because they have so many mouths to feed,” Pierce says.

Shifting food dollars from predictable supermarket fare to more variable fresh produce varieties and amounts seems like a gamble. Younger people also cook less than their parents and grandparents did, and fewer know how to prepare fresh food, says Pierce.

Gardens are great, but the best food education for low-income people, Pierce says, is urban agriculture. “They can grow healthy food to eat, and turn around and sell some to make money,” he says. That’s empowering.

To train young people to grow, prepare and market food, Pierce created PEAT, the Program for Entrepreneurial Agriculture Training. Nine teenagers are working a plot this summer on Moorland Road in Madison, growing produce that is sold at the South Madison Farmers’ Market. The program, launched with federal stimulus money and assistance from local nonprofit agencies, also provides class time on food preparation and marketing.

The youths say their hands-on experience has prompted them to try more exotic vegetable fare — like okra, or basil whipped into pesto — but some are from families that already garden extensively or buy organic. Carlos Cantu often eats homegrown food he knows hasn’t been tainted with chemicals. “I really like that,” says Cantu, who admits that he extols the benefits of organic food so much that sometimes friends tell him to give it a rest. Torria Wakefield says she has to pitch in from her own earnings for the organic food served at home, but she doesn’t mind. “If you want to stay healthy, why not spend the money?” she asks.

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The city of Madison has taken a similar view — that investments in local food are good for the community. This year, the city gave Community Action Coalition $43,689 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds for its gardens program, an allocation actually recommended for increase to $56,328 next year. Community gardens are thriving, with 53 in the area, and about half of them donate at least part of the produce to food pantries. The city retains a role in securing their continued existence, says Nan Fey, co-chair of the Madison Committee on Community Gardens, through funding and making public land available. 

Madison supports local food production in other ways, too. Proposed changes to the city zoning code — now being rewritten — would make it easier to plant community gardens and market gardens in many areas of the city, and create a classification for urban agriculture districts, says zoning administrator Matt Tucker. Another proposed change would allow larger tracts of land near the city to be preserved for agricultural use and taxed on that value rather than a higher development value, making it more feasible to keep nearby farmland in production.

Mayor Dave Cieslewicz says the city should find ways to give more money to community gardens, which carry terrific community-building capacity, as well as the potential to help people adopt healthy eating habits, he says. Gardens are also a good way to bring home a movement that sometimes skews toward the upper crust. “They are a great way of democratizing the healthy food movement. This has to be the message — that healthy food ought to be available to everybody.”

Lindy Waites and Don Thompson have similar views. On a Sunday afternoon at Eagle Heights Community Garden, as a nesting pair of sandhill cranes walks their chick among the vegetable rows, the two drop squash from their garden plot into one of the new collection bins. “Everyone should have access to healthy food,” says Waites. Thompson reflects on how easily anyone could move from being someone who donates food to someone who needs it.  It’s not like there’s a big difference between them, he says. “We can all get laid off.”