harvested tomatillos

Tomatillos harvested from one of the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens.

Fruits and vegetables can have a significant impact on overall health. They’re the foundation of programs like the Blue Zones Project and Veggie Rx, which aim to increase longevity through nutrition and other lifestyle changes—and the reason Dr. Brian Arndt believes access to fresh produce is crucial to treating and preventing illness. Arndt, a physician at the UW Health Verona Clinic, has worked with the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens (MAFPG) since 2007 to provide people living with food insecurity access to high quality, fresh, and culturally relevant produce. Over the years, he has inspired a shared vision with numerous community partners to ensure “Dane County EATS Healthy” (Enhanced nutrition security for all, Amplified partnerships and collaboration, Transformed regional food system, Sustainable practices and economic stability). Part of this concept includes resources for meal planning and cooking, but to make healthy choices people must first have access to fresh produce.

“Dane County EATS Healthy is an evolving collective vision that relies on community collaboration to increase the emergency food system’s fresh local produce supply, aggregate it, lightly process it, and distribute it with coordinated transportation logistics,” explained Arndt. “It’s critical we shift the focus from addressing food insecurity to the creation of nutrition security – the consistent and equitable access to healthy, safe, and affordable foods essential to optimal health and well-being.”

Planting The Seed

When MAFPG was founded in 2000, the goal was to provide local food pantries with excess produce collected from farmer’s markets, but the demand proved much greater than the supply. Soon partnerships were established with generous landowners to create gardens to specifically supply food pantries throughout Dane County. With advocacy and leadership provided by Dr. Arndt and Dr. James Bigham (formerly a Verona Clinic resident, now at UW Health Odana Road Clinic), the UW Health Verona Clinic Food Pantry Garden was created in 2008 as part of that collective. Its yield supplies about 1000 pounds of produce annually to the Badger Prairie Needs Network in Verona. Other MAFPG pantry gardens and partnerships have sprouted at eight other Dane County locations, and collectively the garden network has contributed more than 2 million pounds of produce over the past two decades to more than 20 food pantries and other food programs throughout Dane County.

Supply Demand Map

Local lifecycle of MAFPG produce. Graphic developed by Arndt, UW MPH student Happy Xiong, and Summer Student Research Clinical Assistant Aynsley Hartney.

Tending The Crops

Dr. Arndt’s daughter, Alexa

Dr. Arndt’s daughter, Alexa, applies bilingual labels to steamer bags of vegetables as part of a virtual occupational therapy session during the early days of the pandemic.

According to Arndt, collecting surplus produce from farms and markets (gleaning) and growing produce are both critical to MAFPGs’ mission but none of it would be possible without volunteers, as MAFPG only has a single paid employee (farm manager). Annually, about a quarter of the total produce contributed is gleaned. In 2021,1,300 volunteers worked over 8,300 hours to glean, plant, maintain, harvest, package, and distribute produce. That’s more than double the volunteers the program boasted prior to 2020. In addition, volunteers and community partners of all skill levels chopped veggies and created steamer bags with bilingual labels.

“We’re proud to welcome individuals of all abilities and backgrounds regardless of previous gardening experience,” added Arndt.

Bagged vegetables

10 oz steamer bag of vegetables from MAFPG with bilingual cooking instructions.

The influx of volunteers has allowed MAFPG to expand total acres planted with a continued focus on culturally relevant produce including bok choy, cilantro, okra, tomatillos, hot peppers, bitter melon, collard greens, small/early cabbage, mustard greens, leeks, Asian eggplant, garlic, and early yields from perennial fruit plants including strawberries. The 2021 harvest increased 35% compared to 2020 providing 23 organizations 113,000 pounds of fresh produce. It was distributed through the food pantry network and local meal programs including healthy snack and weekend meal programs in several local schools where one in six kids don’t have regular food access. Arndt hopes the latest expansion with Forward Garden at the 15-acre Pope Farm Homestead in the Town of Middleton will help meet increasing demand.

Harvesting a Brighter Future

Forward Garden is adjacent to the 105-acre Pope Farm Conservancy and the new Pope Farm Elementary School with future plans to build Pope Farm Middle School. The proximity of the garden to the schools offers an opportunity to get local students involved in the mission while they learn about the lifecycle of plants, starting and planting seedlings, and harvesting the crops.

garden map

Plans for Forward Garden at the 15-acre Pope Farm Homestead.

Focusing on Sustainability

As the volunteer base increases, expansion plans at Forward Garden include planting orchards and terraced gardens as well as an onsite greenhouse with hydroponic growing technology to get closer to a year-round fresh produce growing model.

“Having nearly 1,500 students adjacent to the farm who can learn the nitrogen cycle through hydroponics all while learning how to feed a community and nurture nature seems like part of the holy grail in experiencing the excitement of what our future of community medicine can look like,” explained Arndt.

Efforts to honor conservation and reduce food waste are also part of the expanding mission. A high-volume rainwater collection system nourishes the plots, and a high-tech onsite walk-in cooler helps ensure the freshest produce possible reaches food partners (typically within 24 hours of harvest). MAFPG contributes imperfect produce to Little John’s Kitchens who processes it and incorporates it into chef-quality microwave ready meals, which further reduces food waste while serving our community’s needs. An exciting summer 2022 pilot to collect pre-consumer compost from BeneBlends, Forage Kitchen, and These Days Juice Co has saved more than 5,000 pounds of food waste from our landfill and in turn created healthier soil at Forward Garden.

White House Strategy to Address Hunger, Nutrition, and Health

The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, the first such conference convened by the White House in more than five decades, outlined five “pillars” for reducing hunger in the US and improving nutrition:

  • improving food access and affordability;
  • prioritizing the role of nutrition and food security in health, including in the prevention and management of disease;
  • helping consumers make healthy food choices (and have access to healthy foods);
  • supporting physical activity; and
  • enhancing nutrition and food security research.

We Grow Big Ideas“I think the essence of these five pillars is captured in our local efforts and the vision that Dane County EATS Healthy,” said Arndt. “Nearly 50,000 individuals in Dane County don’t experience nutrition security. Although the big picture might seem complex, at the end of this long collaboration chain is a supply of healthy food delivered with dignity to those in need.”

Related Links

For more information about Dane County EATS Healthy visit: https://www.fammed.wisc.edu/food-is-medicine/

For more information about the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens visit: https://foodpantrygardens.org/index.html

Published: October 2022