Campus gardens growing to help out during pandemic

Victory gardens sprouted on what is now the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus during World War I and II, flourishing on the field where the university’s Engelmann Stadium now stands.

This spring, university gardens are again helping out in a crisis.

With campus closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, gardeners couldn’t put out their tomatoes, beans, carrots and other plants in the university’s rental garden plots. The plots are normally used for staff, faculty and students.  

So instead, a small team working with the Campus Sustainability office will be planting and caring for the plots this summer, with all the fresh produce going to the UWM Food Center and Pantry, according to Kate Nelson, UWM chief sustainability officer.

The team started planting when the rain let up the week of May 18.  Nina Hartwig, a junior who works with the sustainability office, had already given some vegetables a head start in her apartment.

Main veggies being planted include potatoes, tomatoes and spinach, but the gardens will also grow lettuce, kale, zucchini, summer squash and peppers. Since a number of people have donated seeds, other produce like carrots and Swiss chard may also be available.

The fresh produce will be welcome, said Quincy Kissack, assistant director of Student Association Professional Staff, who directs the food pantry. The pantry, which is open one day a week, is serving about 170 people every week. That compares to around 150 a month before campus closed. More than 1,500 people have received food bags since the campus closed, she added.

Finding vegetables and fruits is becoming more challenging. “Many grocery stores have limits on canned foods (especially fruits and vegetables), and we aren’t allowed to exceed them,” Kissack said. “We’ve gotten creative, but having fresh produce from the campus gardens means that our patrons will have a consistent source of nutrition.”

Victory gardens bloom again

The gardens have a long history at UWM.

The UWM Food and Garden Club and the Office of Sustainability brought campus gardens back in 2011, some six decades after the end of World War II. Fifty raised beds were installed outside the Physics Building that year, and additional gardens were established near Sandburg  East Residence Hall in 2012. The gardens have served individual gardeners and UWM restaurant operations, as well as for student curriculum and research.

“Our campus gardeners have laid the groundwork over the past few years,” said Nelson. Without their hard work and care of the soil, we wouldn’t have these gardens to make use of now when the need is so great.”

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