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Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens: Filling a need by filling plates

Grant provides support, including new farm manager position

Despite the cancellation of the 2020 American Family Insurance Championship due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation continues to have a charitable impact by making direct donations to primarily local non-profits, including those providing COVID-19 relief. This is the second in a series on local organizations that are grant recipients.

Managing 10 gardens in and around Dane County, Wisconsin, regularly stocking food pantries with fresh produce and organizing more than hundreds of volunteers, week in and week out? It’s the way Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens (MAFPG) has operated successfully since its beginnings.

MAFPG addresses the issues of food insecurity by having a significant impact on the local emergency food system by providing produce for many food banks, food pantries and community groups who give food assistance to those in need. Volunteers glean surplus crops in fields and from markets, along with tilling, planting, maintaining and harvesting produce; usually 100,000-125,000 pounds per year.

The organization was a recipient of a grant from the Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation in 2019 for their work in the community, and even with the cancellation of this year’s tournament, the foundation has committed to another charitable grant in 2020.

“We are grateful to the Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation for helping us meet our goal of providing food pantries and our neighbors in need with the first-choice fresh vegetables they aren’t finding otherwise,” said MAFPG Marketing Coordinator Katie Schmitt. “This includes growing culturally relevant food.”

Specialty crops fill need for diverse meals

Specialty crops are foods relevant to the population they serve. Providing food people know how to cook and want to cook is a goal, as many of these crops are not typically donated to pantries in bulk by local farmers.

These include items like: Tomatillos; okra; cilantro; scallions; Cuban oregano; bitter melon; Asian eggplant; and habanero peppers.

With those crops, plus the more typical produce like tomatoes, corn, squash and asparagus, more than two million pounds of food produced by MAFPG has been channeled into Second Harvest Foodbank and many other pantries in the greater Dane County area since MAFPG began in 2000.

Expanding the organization

Two years ago, leaders of the non-profit discussed the future and looked at several issues they wanted to address: an aging volunteer population; plans for expansion; and pursuing a permanent site. The grant from the Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation allowed them to finance a new position and hire a farm manager to oversee operations and look at future direction, goals and plans.

“The farm manager is our first paid employee in 20 years,” said Schmitt. “This employee manages operations, promotes a continued positive atmosphere within the organization and provides educational opportunities, while also making sure we continue to do what we do best – grow good food.”

Growing need amid COVID-19 crisis

That need for fresh, nutritious produce is even greater now amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In a normal year, one to eight people in Dane County experience food insecurity as do one in five children,” said Schmitt. “With COVID-19 and hardships like loss of jobs and income, that number has grown.”

Larry Binning, MAFPG vice president, said the need for organizations like theirs is even greater as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, especially now in the summer when kids are not in school.

“The need is greater than ever when you look at what’s happening in food banks everywhere,” said Binning, “Local food banks have had a steady flow of product leaving their facilities. It’s going to be even more important for us to have our dedicated volunteers and get healthy crops planted in the fields.” MAFPG has worked out ways for volunteers to still help and be safe amid the pandemic.

Importance of education

Education can mean anything from high school students working in the field, to learn what something like brussel sprouts look like as they grow, to encouraging volunteers to start their own gardens at home. In the next couple of years, MAFPG is hoping to add a second full-time employee dedicated to education.

“Education can mean partnerships with schools, homeschool groups or companies, and connecting people with food services,” said Schmitt. “We always want to offer that personal and healthy connection to how food is produced.”

Watch this video to learn more about MAFPG:

For more about the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens and the good work they are doing to serve communities, or to volunteer, visit their website.

In its first four years, the American Family Insurance Championship provided proceeds of more than $7.1 million to 280 charitable organizations through the Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation. This year's contributions bring the total to more than $10 million.