Campus garden provides fresh produce for food pantry
WHITEWATER—Lorenzo Backhaus used to be a high school athlete who knew nothing about growing vegetables.
Now he dreams of raising organic food in the Amazon for indigenous people.
On many days, you can see the 22-year-old senior in the campus garden at UW-Whitewater.
Wearing a sun-shielding hat, Backhaus works to the rhythm of cardinal songs or Led Zeppelin, depending on the day.
He's done it all, from planting to composting to weeding, and couldn't be happier.
“I'm growing life and supporting life here,” Backhaus said on a recent morning after tending a raspberry bed. “I get goosebumps sometimes. All this is what Mother Nature provides.”
He considers working in the large garden with up to 50 different plant varieties a privilege.
“I'm making a difference here,” he said. “I wouldn't want to be doing anything else.”
Last year, the garden provided 1,800 pounds of fresh produce to the Whitewater Community Food Pantry.
Most people who work in the garden are volunteers.
“The vegetables are top quality,” said Mariann Scott of the pantry. “People love them and are excited about them.”
Growing vegetables might sound like a throwback to the past, but for urban students who cannot recognize one vegetable plant from another, the garden introduces new possibilities.
In addition, it provides better nutrition for those who come to the food pantry.
Children who eat poorly can be beset their entire lives with chronic health conditions such as obesity and diabetes, Scott said.
“In 2015, a government survey found that low-income families may eat enough calories but not get enough nutrition,” she said.
The idea for a campus garden came several years ago after officials heard a talk by Milwaukee farmer Will Allen.
Allen's nonprofit center for urban agriculture offers training to urban farmers and helps build food security.
In 2013, the UW-W's Tom Karthausser, Kara Meissen and Wes Enterline began co-instructing a new service-learning class in growing vegetables.
Originally, it focused on at-risk students. Last year, most in the class were business students.
Ben Prather took over the class with Enterline, UW-W's sustainability coordinator, in 2015.
The campus garden is part of a local food movement in Whitewater, Enterline said.
The movement includes an effort to bring a co-op grocery under the name Whitewater GroCo to the city.
Enterline considers the campus garden an experimental space featuring standard and heirloom vegetable varieties, which are grown without the use of chemical pesticides.
He invites the curious to ask questions, enjoy the growing space and perhaps be inspired to start their own gardens.
“The ultimate fringe benefit is everything we grow ends up in the hands of people who need it,” Enterline said.
Lettuce, salad greens, green onions, radishes, strawberries and raspberries are currently in abundance. Green beans, tomatoes, peppers and summer squash will follow.
Students also collect donated produce from city market vendors and bring it to the food pantry. Last year, they gathered 4,500 pounds.
Enterline, who often works in the garden, enjoys it.
“Gardening is a tangible way to take pride in your work,” he said. “I have an opportunity to come out here and 'unplug' myself. At the same time, I know it makes a positive impact on others.
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.