Margaret Franchino | Green Bay, WI
From the age of eight or nine, I volunteered with my family for the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens. Weekly, throughout the summer, we’d go help take care of a big garden and all the food that was harvested went to food pantries.
I was a very, very whiny gardener at first. For many years my mom would drag me and my two sisters to the garden. I would complain that it was hot and buggy and take really long water breaks in the car. I give lots of credit to my mom for not giving up and still making us go each week. But as time went on I started to really respect the people who were doing the work and could see the benefit of it, and I eventually joined the Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens board. When I first volunteered with my family I didn’t completely understand where the food was going. I think I understood at some level, but you know, a child’s perspective. As I got older, I understood more of how our food system works and where the food we grew was going. Looking at the work I do now, I must have liked volunteering with my family because here I am.
All community gardens are different. They vary in how they’re run and by whom, in who participates, and in what happens with the food grown in them. Extension Brown County has a network of twelve (plus two mini-sites) gardens throughout the county where anyone is welcome to rent a space to grow their own food. We prepare the land and provide water and the gardeners are responsible for planting, weeding, watering, and taking care of their assigned spot. Then they can do whatever they want with what they harvest. It varies from gardener to gardener. Most people are just growing for their own families, but some people grow to donate to food pantries and some people grow to sell.
People of all different backgrounds participate in the program. I meet most people out in the gardens, just being there and crossing paths with people. It’s interesting to hear their stories and gardening backgrounds, especially because so many of our gardeners are immigrants and refugees—about forty percent are Hmong and fifteen percent are Spanish speaking. The vast majority of our gardeners are much better gardeners than I am. I have a lot to learn from them.
The Brown County Community Gardens Program doesn’t own any of the land that the gardens are located on. We use it by forming land-use agreements with the landowners. Some of our gardens are on city land and some are on land owned by private companies. There are a couple on land owned by churches, one is owned by a plastic company, and a daycare company owns the land for another one. There’s also variety in how long we can use the land for a community garden. There’s one right now that has been actively for sale for most of the five years we’ve had the garden there. Most of our gardens are fairly stable, and we’ve been fortunate enough to get grants and donations to install permanent water at some sites—I hope those ones are here to stay!
I’ve really grown in the position; it’s been an incredible first full-time job. The variety of things that I get to do and the scope of the program, and how it’s grown over the years has been really amazing. I’m a part of the Extension Brown County office, but I’m the main one who’s doing community gardens, so I am essentially a department of one. I do all the different pieces, from marketing to communications to fundraising to the day-to-day work, like staking out the garden plots. It’s been really interesting wearing all those different hats.
I’m also supported by a lot of wonderful volunteers. Last year, because daycare was closed during Covid, I worked for a few months from my parent’s house in Madison, so they could help me with childcare while I was trying to keep things afloat. Program volunteers did all the work to open the gardens. I coordinated the different pieces like purchasing the stakes and things like that, and then they went out and did everything onsite for me, which was amazing.
When I started volunteering with the food pantry gardens as a child, I never would have believed gardening would someday be part of my job, but I’m now so grateful for all the wonderful people and opportunities it has led me to, and am still amazed each day by gardenings’ wide-reaching benefits.