Programs May Come and Go, But Community Action Principles Remain Strong

By Greta C. Hansen, Executive Director

There are many aspects of Community Action Agencies that set us apart from other non-profits.  One is the amazing ability of Community Action Agencies to respond to changing conditions in the communities we serve. Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin, Inc (CAC) is going through just such a change.

Over thirty years ago, CAC became involved in helping low-income families start community gardens. These gardens, located throughout Madison and DaneCounty, became points of community development not only for low-income households, but for the gardening communities attracted to each site. The gardens resulted in greater cultural understanding as well as healthy food.  

Over the years, more than fifty community garden sites blossomed. Each is the result of resident-driven interest and commitment to the hard work and ultimate success that these efforts offer. 

In recent years, however, CAC’s Board and staff began to take a closer look at who was gardening, how leadership in the gardens was being nurtured and supported, and other aspects of this very popular program. Ultimately, the Board asked itself whether CAC’s limited resources were being used in a way that will bring the most benefit to people affected by poverty.

At CAC’s retreat in October 2013, both Board and staff wrestled with these thorny issues.  We came away with a directive to learn if it was time, like several other CAC programs in the past, to spin off community gardens and to reinvent CAC’s role in helping low-income people access gardens as a food security source not only in Dane County, but also in Jefferson and Waukesha Counties.  

At a community conversation in early March 2014, about fifty community leaders contemplated this idea and began the work to create a sustainable community gardens program in Madison and DaneCounty. This reinventing is underway at full speed now since, with staff changes and other factors, CAC will end its leadership role in community gardens by June 1, 2014. 

Why does an organization intentionally change or end what is, for all intents and purposes, a well-run and wildly popular program? There are several reasons involved, primarily the need to address long-term sustainability in terms of finances. Also, the demographics in the gardens have changed over time, with more high-income gardeners participating.  While it is a good thing to have a healthy mix of socio-economic backgrounds, CAC’s Board was concerned about getting too far away from our mission of helping people affected by poverty move to self-sufficiency. And so, this chapter is unfolding with the uneven, bumpy style that most change produces.

In the end, however, Madison and DaneCounty will have a healthy, sustainable community garden program, and CAC will again focus on how low-income gardeners in all three counties might benefit from advocacy, technical assistance, and thirty years experience of growing better lives through community gardens.

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