In Wisconsin, the Governor and his administration celebrate Community Action Month by recognizing the vital contributions Community Action Agencies (CAAs) make to identify and combat the causes of poverty in Wisconsin’s biggest cities and smallest towns. Through innovative programs and services, CAAs play a pivotal role in working in partnership with low-income families. This is especially true during times of disaster, economic turmoil, and worldwide pandemics. Each May, one CAA receives the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Community Action for an outstanding program or project that especially exemplifies the spirit of community action.
This year’s award is presented to Community Action, Inc. of Rock and Walworth Counties (CAI), for its Merrill Community Sharing Garden. CAI is a private, not-for-profit organization offering programs to fight poverty in south-central Wisconsin. Founded in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, its focus then, as well as now, is to prevent and reduce poverty in its local communities. To this end, the agency invests more resources to fight poverty in Rock and Walworth counties than any other not-for-profit organization in the area. CAI develops and implements a broad range of services across its two-county area, including: child care, pre-school and school-age programs, affordable housing and housing counseling services, at-risk youth programs, weatherization, community organizing and development, a homeless shelter, health care, and the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).
CAI’s Merrill Community Sharing Garden, born from one of CAI’s Community Needs Assessments, transformed three residential lots into something of greater beauty and purpose for the surrounding community. The garden targets to operate on a few basic principles:
o To create opportunities for broader community engagement in the Merrill Neighborhood.
o To provide fresh produce to its neighbors.
o To preserve, respect, and enjoy the natural biodiversity of the garden.
o The food is free!
o Take what you need and leave the rest for others to share.
o Respect all forms of life.
For years, the Merrill Community Sharing Garden has been a staple to residents of the Merrill Neighborhood, which houses some of the lowest income families in both Beloit and Rock County. This large-scale urban garden provides fresh produce for the neighborhood from over 1,500 food-producing plants, many of which are grown based on neighbors’ requests and not always found in the city’s grocery stores. While the garden uses a sharing model, allowing neighbors access to food with no commitment to maintain the food source themselves, you will often see multi-generational families picking fresh produce for their meals, and parents and grandparents teaching children about the importance of healthy food and how to grow their own.
The garden has been leveraged to its full capacity for food production in the past two years after two very detrimental events occurred in the Merrill Neighborhood. First, is the closing of Save-A-Lot, a local low-income grocery store within walking distance of the neighborhood. When this store closed it created a food desert that left many underserved residents with little to no access to nutritious food. The second major event was the COVID-19 pandemic. This pandemic further isolated an area of Beloit from resources. During the pandemic, the Beloit Daily News published a story about the Merrill Garden Coordinator Kaelyb Lokrantz and his efforts to continue to feed the community and provide services for those who desperately needed them. The garden was able to double the amount of food that was produced to meet these heightened demands. These efforts received national attention after the Associated Press published the Beloit Daily News article, even including a congratulatory tweet from Governor Evers’ office.
The garden is leveraging partnerships to creatively engage low-income residents, including using its outdoor classroom to provide a formal space for students to learn about growing their own food. This year, the garden also built an outdoor oven to teach cooking classes for neighbors and launched a new program to give vegetable and flower seedlings away to the community to increase food independence and create a positive recreational activity for families at home together.
The garden has been such a success that it has sparked two separate plans to develop similar projects within the City of Beloit, and serves as a model to other communities striving to increase food security and self-sufficiency.