Extension initiatives recognized for Growing Together with community gardening

Each year, the USDA’s National Institute on Food and Agriculture (NIFA) recognizes visionary leadership and diversity in educational programming. The Growing Together Multi-State Collaborative – which includes UW–Madison Extension, Iowa State University Cooperative Extension, Purdue University Extension, Michigan State University, Montana State University, South Dakota State University, University of Illinois, University of Nebraska, and the University of Wyoming – received the 2023 Excellence in Extension Team Award.

The National Excellence in Extension Team Award recognizes excellence of an Extension team performing research, technical assistance, and outreach education. Over the last three years, the collaborative has donated 1.8 million servings – over 600,000 pounds – of fruits and vegetables to 878 food distribution sites, serving 375,000 people.

Between 2017 and 2023, 195 Wisconsin Master Gardeners volunteered over 5,000 hours of their time to Growing Together projects to donate over 30,000 pounds of produce to 62 donation sites statewide. In five years, Extension has leveraged $110,000 of SNAP-Ed funding and $75,000 of other funds to successfully initiate and support Growing Together projects.

The Growing Together Multi-State Collaborative expands access to fresh produce at food distribution sites and food pantries. It also offers nutrition and gardening education to those experiencing food and nutrition insecurity throughout the North Central United States.

Since 2017, Growing Together has brought together FoodWIse SNAP-Ed funding and resources, Master Gardeners able to grow and educate others on gardening, and community partner space and connections to provide fresh, locally grown produce to food distribution sites and food pantries across the state.

Across 34 counties and 4 tribal nations, Growing Together projects have made differences in local residents’ abilities to contribute to the availability of and to access freshly grown food.

In Douglas County, Growing Together FoodWIse mini-grant funds supported the development of a community garden on land adjacent to the Superior Golden Apartments, a low-income senior apartment complex in the city of Superior. The Superior Community Gardens Association (SCGA) acquired land from the City of Superior in 2018. The SCGA built, maintained, and harvested the garden with volunteer assistance from neighboring resident family participants and the senior population. Twenty-five pounds of produce were donated to two elementary schools located in the same census tract and the Northwest Community Services Agency food pantry. Gardening education was provided to youth and adults by Master Gardener Volunteers. Extension partnered with the Superior Community Gardens Association, Cooper and Northern Lights Elementary Schools, Superior Golden Living Apartments, Good Garden Company, and Northwest Community Services Agency Food Pantry in this effort.

At the Lac du Flambeau Youth Center, Extension FoodWIse and Master Gardeners partnered with the Abinojiiyag Youth Center, Lac du Flambeau Wellness Center, Lac du Flambeau Department of Natural Resources, Gitigaan Coalition members, and the Lac du Flambeau School District to create the Lac du Flambeau Wellness Garden. The initiative offered a space for garden-based nutrition lessons with grade-schools, as well as donation of vegetables to local elder meal site and youth center. With a 2018 mini-grant, these efforts were able to continue and expand with additional nutrition education and intergenerational lessons. Sixty-two pounds of 17 varieties of plants were donated to the elder meal site and Abinojiiyag Youth Center during the 2018 season.

FoodWIse, ADRC, and Catholic Charities have partnered for several years in Manitowoc County to provide nutrition education to Hmong elders through senior centers and Hmong Family Ties. In 2018, they coordinated efforts to create the first Hmong Senior Meal site in Manitowoc County, offering culturally appropriate foods and language assistance. However, the availability of fresh foods at the senior meal site was lacking. Growing Together WI mini-grant funds enabled the development of an onsite garden complete with raised beds accessible to the meal site clients. A variety of nutrition and gardening education was provided at the meal site and garden. Manitowoc County FoodWIse collaborated with Star-Splitters 4-H Club, 4-H Teen Ambassadors, Youth Advocates for Community Health, Catholic Charities, and United Health Care to produce 10 pounds of fresh produce for the meal site.

Dr. Manjit Misra, NIFA Director, said “Each year, these awards showcase the fundamental, transformative difference Cooperative Extension continues to make in our society. This important partnership and excellent programs like these are a testament to the true value of Cooperative Extension capacity funds more than a century after the Smith-Lever Act created this unparalleled system of outreach and education that enriches every community across the nation.”