During World War II, communities planted what were known as “victory gardens” that would supplement food shortages caused by the great global crisis.
Now, as the world faces a new crisis, communities including La Crosse are looking to mimic that idea, also a way to invoke a sense of hope and community around the city.
The city planning department will introduce a new victory garden project to the Board of Parks Commissioners later this month for approval of up to six gardens.
One of the biggest issues the planning department tackles is food insecurity, and so already equipped with the knowledge and tools to make the gardens happen, the department was inspired to launch the project.
“But when you have something like a global pandemic, it starts to make you think about getting more aggressive with it,” city planner Jason Gilman said.
Six sites are being looked at right now for the gardens, including lots at City Hall, the Hogan Administration Building and various parks around the city.
Each garden will be 32-by-50 feet, which can feed at least 100 people.
Each lot will cost $4,000 to construct, which will come out of the planning department’s budget, Gilman said.
The locations for the gardens were chosen based on proximity to water sources, access to public land and food-insecure neighborhoods.
Last week, the United Nations warned that COVID-19 measures could cause a global food shortage because of shortages of field workers, and potential tariffs and export measures.
In La Crosse, certain areas are already designated as food desserts, including the Powell-Poage-Hamilton neighborhood, where residents have little access to nutritious and affordable food because of store proximity and financial insecurities.
And people around the city also are looking ahead to possible food shortages.
Kevin Wenzel and his partner, Mike Kavanaugh, are looking to increase the amount of food they usually grow in their two garden plots on the South Side.
The two experienced gardeners have been planters for most of their lives and are for the first time now looking at how their gardens can sustain them and their friends through a tough time.
“Before, it was just more or less enough for us and a few friends. But we’re thinking this year might be a little different,” Kavanaugh said.
“So we decided to throw away the frivolous stuff and kind of focus on food,” Wenzel added.
This year, they’ll maximize their gardens to be more sustainable and prosperous, using techniques such as planting corn on top of pumpkins to maximize space, planting rows closer to each other and using a hoop house that can extend the plant life for a few months.
“All of our gardening friends, we’ve always shared plants and talked about techniques,” Wenzel said. “And now that things have gotten kind of crazy, this is probably a good time to give back to your community.”
The couple plans to use the crops to keep themselves and their friends stocked through the summer, and any excess harvests they hope to give away to the community.
“We’re just kind of getting back to that kind of movement, just being local and fresh,” Wenzel said.
And they said they’re hopeful others can use similar gardening techniques to supplement their own crops, mentioning that milk jugs can serve as good starting containers for new plants and that the ends of certain plants, such as celery, can be used to resprout an entirely new plant.
“It’s just a good time to get creative with things,” Kavanaugh said.
The city’s public beds will hopefully be plant-ready by early spring, according to Gilman, so that up to three different harvests can get completed before winter.
Volunteers will plant and maintain the gardens throughout the year, and then the finished crops will be open to the public to go and harvest when ready, similarly to the food forest at the YMCA.
“These gardens don’t have to be pristine ... I don’t think that they all have to be perfect to produce food for the public,” Gilman said.
Those interested in volunteering to help with the public gardens should contact Gilman directly.
During WWII efforts, victory gardens were able to produce hundreds of thousands of tons of food for communities across the country, Gilman said.
And as shelter-in-place restrictions extend, it will hopefully bring something bright to the community.
“It’s not just about food insecurity,” Gilman said, “but a way for the public to pitch in, and a visible sign of relief.”
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