By LAIGHA ANDERSON
HSHS St. Joseph's Hospital is tackling hunger head on, by growing food in a garden for the community.
For the past 10 years, the hospital in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, has been providing fresh food to local food pantries in its service area through a volunteer-tended garden. The garden produces hundreds of pounds of food per week during the planting and harvesting season, which starts in mid-May.
"God provides the sunshine, we provide the water and security," said Roger Elliot, who coordinates the hospital's garden program.
The garden took root after the 2010 census. That census revealed that in Chippewa County and the surrounding area the hospital serves about 14% of people lived at or below the poverty line and as many as one-tenth of the population of about 100,000 were food insecure.
"We looked at the report and said there is like 40 acres of vacant land behind the hospital. If we could do garden space, we could grow food, provide those who are hunger challenged space to grow their own food," explained Elliot.
The hospital already was undertaking a massive renovation project that included work on the hospital's healing garden.
The vacant 40 acres became the site of 24 garden plots, each 12 feet wide by 24 feet long. The HSHS St. Joseph's Hospital Foundation provided the money to pay for the work needed to create the plots. The plots have an irrigation system, so volunteers do not need to haul water into the garden.
It was slow going at first. Elliot said the garden initially was not fenced in. And being in a deer-heavy part of the state, that meant the wildlife was helping itself to the plants. The open nature of the site also allowed for vandals to disturb the garden. At one point, someone drove a car through. In total, the garden produced less than 200 pounds of food in 2013.
There was a fix for both problems, though — a fence with a locked gate that now surrounds the garden. Over the next nine years, the garden produced more than 11 tons of food for local food pantries and food kitchens.
When the concept of the garden originally took shape, the hope was that families in need would claim a plot for a small fee that would be put into the upkeep. While that remains an option, and scholarships can cover the $20 garden fee, the hospital has found that the best use of the garden is to open the plots to volunteer gardeners. Those growers pay a $35 fee and then donate their crops to food pantries. The fees are reinvested in the garden, with some of the money used to buy new tools and the rest kept in a fund for use as needed.
Volunteers are able to drop off their harvest at the hospital, where staff take the food to nearby food kitchens and food pantries. Which of the places gets the food depends on whether they are open on the day of the donation and how much they can take.
Trial and error
One of the volunteers at the garden is Cathy Lombard. She said she has always had a love of gardening.
The first year Lombard gardened one plot, but she enjoyed it and increased her growing space. At one point she tended as many as seven plots. For now, she's gardening five.
She said there has been some trial and error over the years. Once chipmunks dug into her plots. However, she quickly discovered that chipmunks don't like Irish Spring soap. Putting some soap into the holes kept the critters away.
She has experimented with the foods she has grown and donated, learning that those who receive the foods can be quite adventurous in what they enjoy. One year she attempted to grow kidney beans only to find that the summer heat made them too bitter.
'A nice service'
Lombard and the other growers aren't the garden's only volunteers. Years ago, a Boy Scout built a shed for the garden as a part of his Eagle Scout project. The shed allows tools and other gardening supplies to be kept on site. The shed is accessible with the same key that is used to get inside the garden fence. The scout raised money to build the shed and used what was left over to buy tools so no one has to bring their own to the garden.
The garden has grown to include a small apple orchard. A local group prunes the trees. Two Honeycrisp trees are recent additions. Two beehives in the garden pollinate the plants to increase sustainability.
Lombard pointed out that, given the high incidence of food insecurity in and around Chippewa Falls, it is likely that she and the other gardeners are growing food for some of their friends and neighbors.
"It is a nice service to provide to the community, so they have fresh vegetables," Lombard said.