Healthy Cooperation

The Community Action Commission forms a healthy cooperation with other forward-thinking foundations

Food is news. It’s a big story. The last decade has propelled food issues, from organics to subsidies, to the forefront of people’s minds. And for the most part that’s a good thing. It seems like the grittier issues around food, like food security—issues dealing with food and poverty—don’t get the same attention. But work is being done, hard work, combining philanthropy, innovation and vision.

The Community Action Coalition of South Central Wisconsin builds on the “strengths, assets and capacities of low income people and communities to develop solutions for poverty.” Chris Brockel is the manager of CAC’s food and gardens division. “We’ve been doing community gardens for thirty years,” Brockel told us recently. “It’s a nice program, kind of a sleepy little program, chugging along.”

Up until five or six years ago CAC oversaw twenty-three community gardens, including nineteen in the city of Madison. But then a new city comprehensive plan set a goal of one community garden for every two thousand households—fifty-three gardens based on the population at the time. “That was going to be a lot of work to reach that goal in any kind of reasonable timeframe,” says Brockel.

At the same time CAC was working with the Madison Community Foundation “on educational stuff,” and Foundation vice president for community initiatives Tom Linfield told Brockel, “We’re really interested in the community garden thing and we want you to think big.” Brockel says, “We came back to him with what we thought were some neat concepts and he just kept saying, ‘No, you’re not thinking big … I want you to think big big.’ Tom’s a great guy and he helped us think differently and we ended up with a three-year, $300,000 grant that would support the growth of community gardens and create a model for the installation of new gardens and also work on a food pantry garden idea.” 

CAC used the money to ramp up the number of community gardens to the city goal of fifty-three and institute a Plant a Row for the Hungry program. But faced with a choice of either starting their own farm or going to farmers markets and buying food, CAC “sort of landed in the middle,” says Bockel, and used the MCF grant money to create Harvest to Home, making small grants available to service groups that were interested in having a garden to donate food to a food pantry. “We thought if we got five or six different organizations to do something we’d be really successful,” says Bockel. “That first year we had twenty-two organizations.”

But success breeds new challenges, and after the three-year MCF grant, CAC needed help to continue growing the program. Linfield suggested Brockel contact the just-established Goodman Foundation. As it turns out, the Goodman Foundation had just contacted United Way of Dane County about a rash of apparently unrelated requests for funding food system projects and Goodman wanted to know why folks weren’t talking to each other. United Way told Goodman CAC did that kind of work and once again one thing led to another. So now Goodman is funding CAC for “conceptual mapping of the food system and how healthy foods get into low-income neighborhoods,’” says Brockel. “If we want to increase the amount of food we’re getting, and we want to feel good about it, that food is going to be either locally grown food or gleaned perishable foods.”

The point—the genuine article, if you will—is this: How lucky we are to have two forward-thinking foundations working with an organization like CAC combining resources, innovation and hard work, improving the quality of life, and health, for all citizens in Madison.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to

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