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Growing Food for the Hungry

At the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry and Community Garden, in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, volunteers grow food for low-income and unemployed neighbors and teach the community about gardening. This is an interview with one volunteer.
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Horticulture: Tell us how you came to be involved in the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry and Community Garden. What inspired you to get involved? What do you hope to accomplish by doing this kind of work?

Nancy Vevea: Our University of Wisconsin Extension Nutritional Education Coordinator, Toni Rogers, was the initial spark for the Rhinelander Area Community Garden project. She helped us dream and set our sights high. Her challenge and encouragement organized us and kept us motivated to overcome obstacles like finding a site and installing a water supply. We hoped to provide healthy, fresh produce to the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry clients and at the same time learn about gardening from each other and have a bit of fun, too.

H: Tell us about how the gardens and food pantry coordinate efforts and a bit about the people they serve.

We work very closely with the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry to provide fresh produce to the clients. We have approximately a quarter acre of land under production in two gardens. This year we produced over 6,000 pounds of produce for pantry recipients. We also provide horticultural education programs to the community, including programs on composting, growing and using herbs and drip or micro irrigation. Boy Scouts, Master Gardener volunteers, school community service projects and an area correctional facility crew find rewarding work in our gardens. Our volunteers are civic-minded citizens who enjoy gardening and working outdoors. The clients of the food pantry come from all walks of life; low-income working poor, elderly, disabled and unemployed from our community all have access to our food pantry.

H: What surprises you most about the people you meet who are involved with the program?

NV: The volunteer gardeners are very dedicated and will do what ever it takes to get the job done. A gardener was once observed working under the parking lot lights at 11 p.m. to harvest produce before a killing frost! Food pantry clients are so very grateful for the fresh produce, and we also provide fresh flowers and herbs, which are very popular. Community support has been outstanding. We’ve received fencing, a shed, tools, a water supply and many, many expressions of thanks for our work. We also try to have fun in the garden and have regular garden parties where we share good food and laugh at our foibles— we’re not perfect gardeners!

Catholic Charities donated one site for our use, and it shares a city lot with their senior-citizen housing apartments. As a result, some seniors work in the garden, a few have small plots within the garden where they raise their own produce and many others watch the growing garden with great interest. We are extremely fortunate to have garden leaders Tom Jerow, Cathy Cleland and Laura Marquardt who helped the pantry/garden receive the 2007 Wisconsin Hunger Hero Award.

What are the rewards of doing this work?

The smiles that we see in the food pantry and in the garden are all the rewards that are needed. They are priceless!

H: How can Horticulture readers find information about similar programs in their areas?

NV: Contact their local University Extension, food pantry, Master Gardener program or other gardening clubs in their communities.

Read about Anne Nagro, another community-minded gardener

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