Raised-bed garden space proposed for Portage Food Pantry users

March 8, 2019

Low-income families, including users of the Portage Food Pantry, could soon be able to harvest their own fresh, home-grown produce.

Portage’s Park and Recreation Board gave its blessing Tuesday to a proposal from the University of Wisconsin-Extension Columbia County to create raised garden beds in Lincoln Park, near the food pantry. It will give qualifying low-income households free access to a garden spot and help from local Master Gardeners to plant and cultivate it.

Caitlin Richardson, coordinator of the Extension’s Food Wise program, said Extension officials will seek a grant through the Growing Together Wisconsin program to create the garden space and an educational program for households that qualify for Food Wise — principally, households eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“It’s the people who have access to the food pantry that we’re trying to reach,” she said.

The food pantry moved to a former pump house in Lincoln Park in 2016.

In addition to food pantry users, Richardson said, the gardening program also would be aimed at low-income households that live in an apartment complex about a quarter-mile from the pantry.

George Koepp, UW-Extension Columbia County agriculture agent, said the Lincoln Park plots would not replace the 24 garden community garden plots on Silver Lake Drive, each 20 feet square, available for $20 per growing season.

The total garden space at Lincoln Park would be about 30 feet wide and 40 feet long, and include six plots, each 4 by 12 feet, with raised beds about 9 inches high.

It may not sound like much space, but Koepp said he’s fed a household of four people for a season on vegetable crops grown in spaces not much larger.

“You can grow an awful lot of vegetables in that area,” he said.

The Master Gardeners also would build a 12-foot-tall fence similar to the one at the Silver Lake Drive community gardens to prevent deer and wild turkeys from raiding the gardens, Koepp said.

When people work the gardens, they would work from the grassy strips of land between each plot, according to Koepp.

The pilot project is envisioned as a way to “get more people involved with gardening, and get their kids out there, too,” he said.

Any produce the gardeners can’t use could be donated to the food pantry for distribution to others, Koepp said. “There would be zero waste.”

Board member Mark Hahn asked if the city could incur liability if the garden produce were distributed and turned out to cause food-borne illness.

Not likely, said Parks and Recreation Manager Dan Kremer, because city officials would neither grow the food nor determine whether it’s suitable for distribution.

Eventually, however, the gardens would be city property, if the program continues in subsequent years.

Koepp said the program would not need electrical power, though a source of water would be helpful, because raised beds usually require more hydration than surface gardens.

The panel viewed an aerial image of Lincoln Park, showing two possible locations for garden spot — one right behind the food pantry near basketball courts, the other on the food pantry’s west side.

The Parks and Recreation Board approved either location, with the understanding that the final decision as to which location will be used will be made after the snow melts.

If the grant comes through, plans call for building the garden spot in the spring, so people can start planting in about mid-May.

Koepp said people whose incomes qualify them to participate in Food Wise will be eligible to apply for a garden plot. Inquiries can be directed to the Extension offices at 608-742-9680.

Hahn suggested making the raised beds education program available to anyone.

“You might find people in the community who want to try this in their own yards,” he said.