Food pantry gardens seek leaders to sustain mission Print E-mail
Around the Diocese
Written by Dick Jones, For the Catholic Herald   
Thursday, Nov. 03, 2016 -- 12:00 AM
Food Pantry Garden Leaders
Tom Parslow, left, has been coordinator of the Lacy Garden in Fitchburg since 2009, and for the past four years has also served as president of the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens. He is pictured with landowner partner Phil Lacy, right, and his son Tom Lacy  at the Phil and Winnie Lacy farm off Whalen Rd. in Fitchburg. Parslow is seeking a replacement in the garden leadership positions. 
(Photo by Dick Jones)

Third and last in a series on the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens.

MADISON -- The Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens (MAFPG) has a pressing need for two garden leaders, and replacing them poses a major challenge for the nonprofit organization in growing fresh produce for the poor.

Tom Parslow and Phil Cox are seeking new recruits to run the gardens they manage. Both worked as volunteers alongside Emmett Schulte, who founded the food pantry gardens with Ken Witte in 2000. In time, Schulte asked them to become garden leaders.

Since 2009, Parslow has been coordinator of the Lacy Garden in Fitchburg. For the past four years, he also has served as MAFPG president. In all, the nonprofit organization has seven gardens that yield about 98,000 pounds of produce a year for food pantries.

Organization's mission

Simply stated, the nonprofit organization's mission is, "We Plant. We Grow. We Feed," and all of its produce goes to Madison area food pantries.

Two partners, the Catholic Multicultural Center (CMC) and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, run food pantries. Two more partners, the Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin and the Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, distribute the produce to other pantries.

Since 2006, Cox has managed more than one garden, including a large one in the Town of Middleton. That garden has become two; one dedicated in memory of Witte, who died in 2013; and the other, named in honor of Schulte. Cox is the Witte Garden leader.

Looking for successors

Both Parslow and Cox are retired school teachers now in their 70s. Parslow will soon turn 74, and Cox is nearly 77. As much as they find their volunteer work rewarding, they would like to garden less and enjoy retirement more.

Neither has a degree in agriculture. Nor are they certified as master gardeners. But they grew up on farms and have tended vegetable gardens throughout their lives.

When Witte and Schulte started the food pantry gardens, Witte was a retired Oscar Mayer manager, and Schulte, a retired soil science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A degree, training, or strong background is not mandatory.

"It isn't crucial, but it's helpful, and preferable," Schulte said.

What the work involves

Schulte, Parslow, and Cox talked about what it takes to be a garden leader. Briefly, it involves some work during the off season, primarily maintaining tools and equipment and planning what to grow.

When spring arrives, the job is basically scheduling work sessions and coordinating efforts of volunteers in planting, weeding, and harvesting.

While even this brief job description may seem daunting, consider the words of another volunteer-turned garden leader. "It isn't as difficult or complicated as you might think, especially in a shared situation," said Dick Reynolds, volunteer garden leader of the Schulte Garden on the Hershberger property in the Town of Middleton.

Reynolds said the Schulte Garden really has several other co-leaders: Msgr. James Uppena, a retired priest at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Madison; Laura Green, CMC grants and volunteer coordinator; and Dean Noble, a CMC volunteer with a degree in horticulture.

"Someone might say, 'Oh, gosh, I wouldn't know what to do!' Well, if you work alongside somebody for awhile, you get acquainted with things that are important, what needs attention, what doesn't," Reynolds said. "Leaders shouldn't feel like they're going to be out there on their own and having to do a lot of things without people to consult with, people to help them."

Reynolds has known Schulte since they worked together as volunteers years ago when the CMC was known as St. Martin House. Back then, he helped Schulte start a small garden. More recently, Reynolds has helped with meals at the center. When the CMC decided to become a partner in the food pantry gardens, Schulte encouraged Reynolds to become the garden leader.

"Dick Reynolds has been wonderful," Green said. "He's done so much for the gardens. He's kind of the primary leader, but we're like a coordinating team."

Regular volunteers

Cox described a similar approach at the Witte Garden, the largest of the seven gardens and depending on the weather, the top producer, over 3,500 pounds of winter squash this year, for example. The Witte Garden, Cox said, has a solid group of regular volunteers, including one who has worked in the garden for 17 years and another for 16 years.

"There are at least seven or eight, perhaps more Witte volunteers who are better gardeners than I am," Cox said. While he coordinates the planting, weeding, and harvesting, he said his volunteers need little direction. Self-starters, they often arrive early and do what needs to be done.

Transition to new leaders

New leaders could assume duties gradually, Parslow said. He noted that he and Cox both worked alongside Schulte for several years and learned from him. "That's what a person needs, to be willing to learn," Parslow said.

Parslow cited training opportunities during the off season, such as an intensive three-day course for individuals who want to start a market garden or a

small vegetable farm and sell produce directly to households through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) plans.

He said he took the course ( offered by the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, a research center at the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

"It's taught by farmers who grow vegetables for the farmers' markets downtown and at Hilldale and for CSAs," Parslow said. "I go back to see these guys that taught the class. I've gotten ideas from them."

Liaison to landowners

Another important part of the garden leader's job is serving as liaison with the landowners. Without the generosity of these partners donating use of their land, there would be no food pantry gardens, no fresh vegetables for the poor.

Schulte recalled the day he and Witte approached Phil and Paul Lacy about letting them use an acre of their land off Whalen Rd.

"The only equipment we had was a used lawn mower and rototiller that I found," Schulte said. "Ken had a rototiller. That was pretty much it. Well, the Lacys looked at us two old guys and must have thought that acre would be a patch of weeds before long, that we wouldn't be able to keep it up."

Phil Lacy said he remembers when Schulte and Witte showed up, eager to start a garden, and he said Schulte's right, he and his brother both thought the strip of land would soon be overgrown with weeds.

"If that's what would have happened, they probably wouldn't have it any more," Lacy said. "The cornfield would be to the road."

Over the years, Lacy has not only allowed use of the land, but he and his son Tom have let Parslow store equipment in a shed. They've also helped Parslow maintain and repair the machinery.

Need for volunteers

Like Parslow, Lacy is concerned about the ongoing need for volunteers. "A lot of people like to help plant and harvest, but there's a lot of work in between," Lacy said. With the unusually wet growing season, broadleaf weeds got out of hand.

Lacy said he and Parslow have had a good working relationship. "Right now, I don't see anybody coming along that can take over for Tom," Lacy said. "When he goes, I'm kind of wondering what's going to happen."

For more information about the food pantry gardens, visit

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