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McIntyre Library staff sows seeds of philanthropy in community garden project

| Emily Wermund

In early 2018, Roxanne Backowski was contemplating ways to give back and get more involved on campus. She searched for a community service project that aligned with her interests and hobbies and was also outside her day-to-day work as an electronic resources librarian in UW-Eau Claire's McIntyre Library.

Already aware of the Campus Harvest food pantry — an on-campus resource for students who self-identify as needing supplemental food assistance — she knew they would accept donations of fresh produce. She also was reminded of a successful community garden at an institution where she previously worked, and also knew of the Eau Claire community garden that existed on Forest Street.

Paired with her own fondness for gardening and the history of McIntyre Library’s philanthropic initiatives, the pieces soon started to fall into place. After learning about the growing population of students who face food insecurity, Backowski aspired to start her own community garden to help Blugolds in need.

Backowski pitched the idea to Jill Markgraf, McIntyre Library director, and received support to share the project with the entire library staff. Those interested, most of whom were new to gardening, had a planning meeting to determine logistics. Soon, others from across campus got word of the library’s efforts and raised their green thumbs to join the project.

In May 2018 Backowski gathered a group of staff members from McIntyre and other university departments, and the work began. Seeds were collected from local nurseries and the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library’s seed library. All other supplies and plants were donated by McInytre Library staff, who also volunteered their time. The garden itself was a plot within the Forest Street Community Gardens in downtown Eau Claire. Fellow community gardeners were quick to assist with advice or spare tools. Led by Backowski, volunteers met weekly to dig, plant, water and most importantly, weed. For many, the McIntyre Library Community Garden was their first time participating in a garden project from start to finish.

For three months they tilled, worked and watered their plot. Spending summer hours outside of work pulling weeds and watching for pests doesn’t sound all that glamorous, but the fruits of their labor were beyond rewarding.

“The significance of our efforts really did not sink in for me until I saw a student walking out of the food pantry with a full bag of food, including a bag of yellow wax beans we grew,” Backowski says. “At that point, the project was nearly three months along and we just had our first harvest.  In addition to contending with Mother Nature’s ever-growing weeds, dry July weather and pests, we were consumed with the growing process and had not yet connected with those who would benefit from our work.” 

And many do continue to benefit. With the Wisconsin Hope Lab finding 36 percent of Wisconsin university students facing food insecurity and further research showing that food insecurity has been known to hinder students’ academic success, the need to alleviate some of that burden on UW-Eau Claire’s campus is all too real. Those involved in the McIntyre Library Community Garden hope their efforts provide some relief to the food insecurity and hunger Blugold students may experience.

“Access to adequate and nutritious food is a basic human right,” Backowski says. “It is disheartening to realize that students struggle with basic needs such as housing and food during college.”

Since harvest began in mid-July, more than 150 pounds of produce was donated to Campus Harvest from the McIntyre Library Community Garden. Backowski’s efforts illustrate that by tapping into individuals' hobbies and skills, the collective campus community can make a tremendous impact.

As a result of the community garden's successful first year, the UW-Eau Claire Foundation has agreed to support the project further by donating $1,000 to next year’s efforts. The additional funding has the potential to increase future harvests by providing funds for high-quality seeds as well as effective pest and weed control efforts.

Backowski is grateful for the Foundation’s support and for the project itself, which has expanded into an annual cross-campus collaborative endeavor. 

“Faculty and staff all have interests and expertise we can use to make a difference," Backowski says. “Sharing our passions and working toward a common goal fosters relationships and creates community.”