West Allis - As the drills and saws whined, volunteers pushed around wheelbarrows, piled high with soil, in the unseasonable 90-degree heat, all for the sake of creating a garden.
Not just a garden - 24 gardens, to be exact.
Their efforts are part of an initiative encouraging eligible participants who meet income requirements to grow their own food at home. The West Allis Health Department worked with the Victory Garden Initiative to establish the gardens, funded with a federal grant aimed at promoting healthy eating and physical activity.
The selected families helped volunteers from the Victory Garden Initiative, the West Allis Community Garden Committee, and families of health department and planning departments staff. They sawed lumber, screwed planks together and filled the growing beds with garden soil.
For the whole family
In the end, the two dozen raised-bed gardens were created at homes all over West Allis in May, and the gardens are already growing food. In many instances, the whole family got involved.
"It was cute to see the little kids bringing out shovels and rakes to help," said Shawne Johnson, assistant director of community health services for West Allis. "They were really excited about gardening."
To re-inforce the purpose, each child received a tomato plant, seeds for green beans and a trowel to get them going.
Instead of reminding children that they should eat their vegetables, the Victory gardens are aimed at building enthusiasm to eat healthfully, Johnson said.
"You get a garden going and children will be much more likely to eat vegetables if they grow them themselves," Johnson said.
Also, working with nature helps reduce stress and it's a great hobby that brings families together, Johnson said.
Because some of the families have never gardened before, the Health Department is matching them with volunteer experienced gardeners who will mentor them. The department is looking for more mentors, Johnson said.
In addition, the families will be made aware of all the horticulture help the University of Wisconsin-Extension offers and the health department will publish a newsletter twice a season to let families know what will likely be happening in their gardens during the month and what to do if they have questions.
As the gardens begin to bestow their abundance, the families will receive a newsletter about freezing and about classes on canning and the free booklets the UW-Extension has on food preservation, Johnson said.
Raised beds are favored in urban settings such as West Allis because it's hard to be sure that contaminants such as lead are not in yard soil. The raised beds contain clean soil that is safe to grow vegetables in, she said.
Gardening toward victory
The Victory Garden Initiative and the West Allis gardens are rooted in the victory gardens of both world wars, when Americans grew as much food as they could to support the war efforts.
The nationwide Victory Garden Initiative started in the Milwaukee area four years ago.
Its goal is to create an abundant, sustainable ecosystem through the reintroduction of food growing into cities and towns.
Supporters envision fruit trees filling parks, neighbors harvesting tree nuts, food pantries housing vegetable gardens and school children helping grow their own lunches.
Along those lines, the West Allis Health Department has almost cleared the last hurdle to starting a community garden program, in which residents can grow food on a plot that will be theirs for the season.
The department has worked out an agreement with Milwaukee County to establish 28 community garden plots at Rainbow Park at 119th and Walker streets. The agreement is awaiting parks department approval. Health officials hope the plots will be this season.
Four of those plots will be reserved for Walker School children to use.
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