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Madison, Wisc: Young gardeners harvest veggies for poor

  • Subject: [cg] Madison, Wisc: Young gardeners harvest veggies for poor
  • From: Adam36055@aol.com
  • Date: Fri, 20 Aug 2004 14:13:25 EDT

Young gardeners harvest veggies for poor
Teens get down, dirty to help food pantries

By Pat Schneider
August 20, 2004

The teenagers pulled up onions, sliced off broccoli heads, shuffled through vines for spiny cukes.

Box after box slowly was filled: fresh vegetables bound for the tables of low-income families.

The recent day of service for the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardening Project was a first foray into the labors of the field for many of the volunteers from Blackhawk Evangelical Free Church.

They took to it like naturals.

"It's fun," said Sophie Tan, who had had some experience helping in the garden at home. "I like helping people - and spending time with friends."

Other high school students on the job had never pulled a weed or plucked a tomato from the vine. But their enthusiasm was high.

"I'm having the best time," crowed Ben Perreth. "My hands are black, but I'm smiling."

"It's a cool way to serve the community and have an impact on people even though we don't know them," said Nikki Lindroth, working the borrowed field just west of the city.

Talk about impact, exclaimed Chris Brockel, coordinator of food security for Community Action Coalition of South-Central Wisconsin.

"We've seen 10,300 pounds of produce," Brockel said. "That's huge."

CAC provides government commodities and other foodstuffs to the food pantries in Dane, Jefferson and Waukesha counties, and the garden bounty is one way to add fresh produce to the usual pantry fare of canned and dry goods, Brockel said.

It also helps bridge the gap between summer, when pantry stocks grow slim, and the fall season when food drives pick up, he said.

Vegetables produced by the garden project are delivered to CAC and Second Harvest Foodbank of Wisconsin, where they enter a stream of donated produce available in-season to pantries throughout south-central and southwest Wisconsin.

The garden produce "disappears" when it hits the shelves at St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry, manger Alice Seelow said.

"Boy, do we love to see it," she said Monday. "It's usually gone before noon."

The garden project was begun five years ago out of Ken Witte's observation that the produce he helped glean from weekly area farmers' markets was not enough to meet the pantries' needs.

Witte borrowed a single acre that first year; this summer the project is cultivating five 1-acre gardens at four locations around the city.

The garden project last year produced 180,000 pounds of vegetables from 5 acres, said Emmett Schulte, a retired University of Wisconsin-Madison soil scientist who manages them.

Students at Middleton High School start tomatoes and peppers from seed in the school greenhouse; other seed is donated. Land and equipment are available on loan to boost the yield of the program, said Witte, a retired product manger from Oscar Mayer Foods.

"I've turned down additional land," he said. "The problem is getting enough volunteers."

Some 150 volunteers help work the gardens, but many are one-time or occasional workers, Witte said.

That makes it a stretch to provide the 60 to 80 hours of work needed to cultivate each of the gardens each month in season.

"People find it difficult to get out a couple of times in the evening," he said.

But volunteering, as always, has unexpected benefits.

Betsy Finesilver, a volunteer leader for the Blackhawk group, said working in the garden may help the young people reflect on where their food comes from. "We don't think about what a luxury it is to have fresh produce. It's good to do what we can to bring it to people who can't afford to buy it."

The Blackhawk teens worked amid rows of carrots, and green peppers, tomatoes and collard greens, peppering Schulte with questions about the vegetables and how to harvest them, pestering him to retell his joke about the farmer and his "melon-collie."

The boxes of vegetables piled up.

"Many people enjoy gardening and helping things grow," Witte reflected in an interview. "We'd love to have them. They don't need to know anything about gardening - we'll show them what needs to be done."

Gardening is work, Witte stressed. "Hoeing a garden for an hour is something you'll remember."

"It's a lot of work," said Abbey Kopan, pulling a long row of onions. "But it's really cool."

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