United Way of Dane County is committed to decreasing family homelessness in Dane County. One of the key strategies in this work is increasing access to free, nutritious food. One of our partner agencies is doing phenomenal work in our community in this area.

Community Action Coalition (CAC) of South Central Wisconsin empowers individuals and strengthens Dane County communities by making basic needs more accessible.  Food is one of the most basic of these needs and is of special interest to a few of CAC’s employees who are doing great work supporting gardeners who grow produce all over Dane County.  The main focus of these folks is to bring people from different backgrounds together, get them thinking about where their food comes from, provide access to community land, and facilitate the process of growing fresh food.  Even more exciting in some regards though are their efforts to support food pantry gardens.

Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens were the brainchild of Ken Witte and Emmet Schulte. Beginning in the late 1990s, these two volunteer growers produced and donated most of the fresh produce that was available to local pantries at the time. Witte and Schulte led the pantry garden effort in half a dozen sites for more than a decade. These gardens generated up to 100,000 pounds of fresh produce annually for food pantries.

CAC became directly involved with food pantry gardens in 2009 when Witte and Schulte neared retirement. CAC broadened the fresh food supply network in the area by supporting new food pantry garden efforts. Part of this expanded effort included a new VISTA volunteer position, now filled for the 3rd year, devoted to food pantry gardens and fresh food access. The success of the program is tangible: in 2010, 23 food pantry gardens produced 127,000 pounds of fresh food donations. Last year, food pantry gardens expanded to 33 sites, donating a grand total of 131,000 pounds in 2011. In addition, CAC receives garden produce donations from individuals, neighborhood groups and community gardeners who participate in the Plant-a-Row for the Hungry program.

One of CAC’s biggest producers in the food pantry garden effort is Blackhawk Church on the far west side of Madison.  The congregation there has been farming over 2 acres of surrounding land for the past 3 years all for the purpose of donating to help struggling families eat healthier.  Each week during peak production CAC picks up literally tons of food (nearly 50,000 pounds total in 2011) from Blackhawk Church to bring back to its warehouse where nearly 75 food pantries, meal sites, and community agencies can pick up fresh, local produce from Blackhawk Church and other food pantry gardens, local farmers’ markets, or even donations direct from local farms.

In keeping with their effort to supply nutritious food options to struggling households CAC will continue to support and grow the food pantry gardening effort in 2012. CAC has also teamed with Dane County Parks and Conservation and will be planting and harvesting 5 acres of pinto beans on land formerly rented for commodity crops and have begun talks with a local apple orchard to take over stewardship of the orchard in exchange for 100% of the harvest.

To volunteer to help with the Madison Area Food Pantry Garden call United Way 2-1-1 or click here.