If you've been poor and living in Madison in the past 10 years, there's a good chance you've eaten food grown by Emmett Schulte and Ken Witte.
The two men were the driving force behind the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens, formed in 2000 to grow produce for local food pantries.
With their team of volunteers, Schulte and Witte estimate they've grown one million pounds of produce in the past 10 years, on three to five acres of land.
Now that both men are getting on in years - Schulte is 79 and Witte 83 - they've approached the Community Action Coalition to try to find someone to take over.
Enter Chris Brockel, the CAC's food and gardens division manager.
"We wanted the produce that was being donated, but we didn't want to be farmers ourselves," he says. "We thought maybe there is an opportunity to convince others to do it for us."
There's been no shortage of takers. Last year there were four Madison-area pantry gardens; this year 23 teams (mostly church or service groups) have answered the call, promising to donate some or all of the produce they grow to pantries in Dane County.
That means that along with donated packages of Rice-A-Roni and cans of Chef Boyardee, food pantry patrons will be receiving an array of fresh-grown garden vegetables.
Brockel says the natural foods movement began as "sort of a middle-class and up effort. And that's great; it has to start somewhere. But when you look at food availability in low-income neighborhoods and food obesity problems, there was an interest to connect those folks to the same system."
Schulte and Witte didn't start out looking to be farmers. When Witte retired in 1990 from Oscar Mayer Foods, he began volunteering, collecting food for local pantries. He quickly realized that the pantries weren't getting much fresh produce.
So he began going to the Dane County Farmers' Market on the Square each Saturday around closing time, asking for donations. "The most generous were the Hmong vendors," says Schulte. The volunteers collected as much as two tons of food each week, but, Schulte says, "for 47 food pantries that doesn't go far."
Schulte, a retired UW-Madison agriculture professor, volunteered to oversee the group's own gardens in 2000. Three property owners donated an acre each to the effort, which called itself the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens.
In the first year, these gardens grew 50,000 pounds of food. "We doubled our acreage in the second year," Schulte says. "But unfortunately, we didn't double the number of volunteers."
The third year, the group cut back to four acres, which it's maintained since. Members generally grow tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, cabbage, onions, watermelons, squash and pumpkins.
"We don't raise things that are labor-intensive, like green beans, which are very nutritious," he says. "We don't grow potatoes because our soil isn't suited for it."
Although Schulte, who has had back problems, is no longer gardening himself, he's still involved, giving advice and training to others.
Cheri Farha, food pantry manager of the Middleton Outreach Ministry, calls Schulte and Witte "the grandfathers of pantry gardens. They're just amazing. They've had a vision for community and food pantry gardens."
Brockel agrees: "We owe them a debt of gratitude for many reasons. Not only are they the inspiration for what we're doing, they created the model."
There's a misconception, says Farha, that poor people prefer junk food. "That's not true at all," she insists.
But for many poor families, eating healthy isn't an option. "Purchasing fresh produce can be really expensive when you're on a budget," she says. "And we want to make that available to our guests."
Among the produce her pantry receives, Farha says "tomatoes and peppers are really popular. Broccoli and green beans are a huge hit. Any of the fruit is really well received." But, she adds, echoing a common gardeners' refrain, "We had way too much zucchini."
Chris Kane, manager of St. Vincent de Paul's food pantry, says some of those who use pantries "don't necessarily want to take something that will go bad in a short time. Canned goods give them more security because they last longer."
But he says his pantry's fresh produce is highly popular. "To get it from the garden right into people's homes that same day, it doesn't get any fresher than that."
Both Middleton Outreach and St. Vincent de Paul have relied on donated food until now. This year, both are starting their own gardens to supplement their food supplies. They've gotten help from the Community Action Coalition, which provided a grant to buy seeds, plants and equipment, and the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens, which has donated seeds and offered advice.
Both pantries also advise clients to cook and eat fresh food. Middleton Outreach works with a nutritionist, who provides recipes and food samples. "Last fall, we had an abundance of potatoes, so [the nutritionist] made potato soup with nonfat condensed milk, which we also have at the pantry."
In all, says Brockel, there are about 10 acres of pantry gardens planned for this year.
CAC had secured a four-year, $300,000 grant for community gardens from the Madison Community Foundation, some of which has gone to support pantry gardens. Last year, four pantry gardens were funded through the effort. This year, it is donating about $20,000 to 22 pantry gardens to help them buy supplies and equipment.
One concern this year is making sure none of the food gets wasted. "The real issue is the logistics of the delivery system," says Brockel. "Pantries aren't open every day. There are very few open three to five days a week. You want to have something on their shelves that's fresh and usable when they're open."
To this end, Brockel has helped connect the pantry gardens directly with food pantries, so they will have the food ready for pantry hours. That's a problem that might persist because the program has been so popular.
"It has potential to grow more next year," Brockel says. "We've got these 23 efforts for community pantry gardens. As the season goes along, we want to make an assessment of the number of pounds of produce being donated and also the pantries' ability to handle and move that amount. If we feel more can be handled, we'll put more effort into it."
But already, it's clear that the program is a success.
"It's a hard project not to like and not to want to do," Brockel says. "I can imagine it will probably grow even more, whether we encourage it or not."
For more info on the pantry garden effort, contact Chris Brockel, food and gardens division manager for the Community Action Coalition, at 608-246-4730, ext. 206, or email email@example.com.