Madison Area Food Pantry marks 17th season Print
Around the Diocese
Written by Dick Jones, For the Catholic Herald   
Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016 -- 12:00 AM
food pantry tractor
Emmett Schulte works at one of the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens. He helped found the organization along with the late Ken Witte. (Photo by Dick Jones)

MADISON -- Every Saturday during the growing season, they would meet on the Capital Square in downtown Madison before 12 noon, farmers’ market gleaners seeking fresh produce the vendors didn’t sell: some fruit but mostly vegetables for food pantries serving the poor.

Although much appreciated, the donated food wasn’t nearly enough, not with 47 food pantries in Dane County. After three seasons of gleaning, two individuals involved in the effort seized on an idea. They started growing their own produce for the pantries.

What began 20 years ago as the farmers’ market gleaners has become the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens, now celebrating its 17th season with a bountiful harvest despite an unusually wet summer.

Faith in action

As in the mustard seed parable, it’s a story of faith in action, a few individuals at first, but today, in this Jubilee of Mercy called by Pope Francis, more than 700 volunteers are planting and harvesting produce in seven gardens to help feed the hungry.

The gleaning also continues, but in research and commercial gardens as opportunities arise.

While the yield from all the gardens has yet to be tallied, Tom Parslow, president of the organization, expects the number to meet or exceed total production in recent years: nearly 98,000 pounds from the food pantry gardens.

And all of it goes to area food pantries. Produce goes directly to two partner pantries, the Catholic Multicultural Center (CMC) and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, while the remaining produce is distributed by the Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin and the Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin to food pantries throughout the county.

Successful harvest, but challenges remain

Highlights this year include a bumper crop of tomatoes at one garden. Another garden doubled sweet corn production; a third exceeded its squash yield by 3,000 pounds. Thanks to fundraising efforts, a new building houses equipment for gardens in the Town of Middleton.

As successful as the year has been, challenges remain. The need for volunteers is ever present, from field workers to garden leaders. Without these volunteers, as well as the generous landowners who make garden space available, Parslow said the organization could not fulfill its stated mission: “We Plant. We Grow. We Feed.”

“The Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens is just a really wonderful organization,” said Laura Green of the CMC. As the CMC grants and volunteer coordinator, she recruits volunteers to work in the garden providing produce for the CMC.

“It’s just so simple,” she said. “Many organizations do all of these feasibility studies, all this research on a problem, and then they talk about it.

“But food pantry gardens, just the way it was founded, two guys who saw a problem. ‘There are hungry people. What are we going to do about it? Why don’t we just grow food for them!’ And here we are, 17 years later, and it’s still going. It’s a very simple mission, but it has a very deeply felt, positive impact in our community.”

The founders

One founder was Ken Witte, a retired Oscar Mayer manager and member of Ashbury United Methodist Church (UMC); the other was Emmett Schulte, a retired soil science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and longtime member of Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish.

It was Witte who started searching for garden plots, and when Schulte heard about it, he offered to help. So began their collaboration.

A partnership was struck with three landowners: David and Marilyn Atwell in Mt. Horeb, Mike and Linda Hershberger in Middleton Township, and Phil and Paul Lacy in Fitchburg, each donating an acre. The first planting in 2000 produced 50,000 pounds of fresh vegetables, exceeding expectations.

Witte died on April 25, 2013, and soon after his passing, the Ken Witte Garden was dedicated in his honor on the Hershberger property. Last April, another plot at the Hershberger location was named the Emmett Schulte Garden in honor of Schulte.

In a recent interview, Schulte talked about Witte, ever the promoter and recruiter of volunteers.

“He’d get up at Ashbury Church during the homily -- they’d give him time -- and he’d say, ‘Do I have an opportunity for you!’ And they’d begin to call him ‘Mr. Opportunity’,” Schulte said.

Ashbury UMC and Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish have been major sources of funding for the gardens.

Rewards of volunteering

Though hard at times, working as a volunteer in the food pantry gardening has its rewards.

“We used to say, ‘The pay isn’t great, but the fringe benefits are out of this world’,” Schulte said.

“The volunteers were performing Corporal Works of Mercy, ‘Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me’.”