Combatting Food Insecurity with the Flock Food Project

It’s the morning before a late-summer Forward Madison match and a half dozen supporters are gathered at a plot of land just north of downtown. 

Some are pulling weeds in the dirt, while others dig through the soil to pull up ripe the ripe plants in Troy Gardens. Together, they are doing the weekly work needed to tend to The Flock’s community garden plot. 

It’s all part of the new Flock Food Project, an initiative launched in early 2021 by the Mingo Ladies supporters group in partnership with the Capital East Soccer Club. The project aims to provide fresh produce to families in Madison and the surrounding communities facing food insecurity.

Like so many cities across the world, Madison experienced a sharp rise in food insecurity at the onset of the pandemic. The challenge was already significant, and COVID-19 only magnified the inequities that already existed in the region. According to Feeding Wisconsin, the number of people needing help getting food rose by 58 percent in 2020, totaling approximately 300,000 Wisconsin residents. Further, USDA research shows that Madison is home to more than a half dozen communities where over a third of individuals live more than a mile away from a grocery store or healthy food outlet. 

“The sport of soccer is more than just the 90 minutes on the field,” shared Aisha Liebenow. “In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a great need for families to have access to food of any kind. There are also some challenges within our community’s current food system that we wanted to address directly. Food pantries did an amazing job to pivot and find innovative ways to continue to serve the community, and we wanted to see if we could go beyond what they were able to offer.”

The work is twofold. In addition to growing and distributing fresh produce from a dedicated plot at Troy Gardens, the group is working to increase the number of home gardens throughout the community. Some members of The Flock have started their own personal gardens so they can donate their harvest, while other Flock Food Project volunteers have helped individuals and families build gardens at their residences. Together, the goal is to increase food independence across the region.

As Alexa Nichols, one of the founders shared, “In order to really address food insecurity I believe we have to empower people to be able to access their own food. Growing up I came from a family that relied on our garden for food. That connection to the earth and the garden, not as a fun hobby, but as a part of our existence has really stuck with me throughout my life.”

Alexa first got the idea to start up a garden at the onset of the pandemic. In the early months of 2022, she started seeing a variety of neighborhood and local Facebook groups pop up to help people who needed support in the way of food, hygiene products, and much more. The running theme of those groups was lack of access. 

“I started to think about how I could help,” recalled Alex. “The Flock was a natural avenue to make that happen.”

Over the course of 2021, the Flock Food Project grew 26 different varieties of vegetables and hers, and was able to provide 15 weeks worth of produce boxes to community members, in addition to 9 extra boxes of produce to the Goodman Center’s Fritz Food Pantry. And with growing season in Madison coming to an end, the group is already planning for 2022. 

The group has secured two additional plots at Troy Gardens to increase their annual harvest and thanks to grant funding, they will be expanding community engagement opportunities to get more residents and volunteers involved. 

“I’m extremely proud of fact that this even happened, let alone during a pandemic,” said Liam Geoghegan Smith. “None of this would have been possible without the 50+ volunteers that came out on the weekends to plant, maintain, harvest and deliver the food. We had players and coaching staff form Forward Madison FC, members of Madison Magnet, students from Madison’s College Occupational Therapy Assistant program, supporters from The Flock, and non-Flock members come out.”