Community Garden Water Policy in the City of Madison: A Historical Report
Note/disclaimer: This webpage is for instructional purposes only and the scenario described below is fictional.
A report for the Madison Food Policy Council of the current policy surrounding community gardens in the city of Madison, and how the policy should adapt to encourage and promote investment in community gardens.
UW-Madison Task Force Members:
Ally Magnin, Major in Environmental Sciences, Sustainability Certificate
Delaney Gobster, Major in Environmental Sciences and Agronomy
Emma Schmidt, Major in Environmental Sciences
Scenario | Abstract | Introduction | Methods | Results | Tables & Figures | Limitations | Recommendations & Conclusions | Citations | Acknowledgements | About the Authors
In this paper, we as students of the University of Wisconsin - Madison are working with the Garden’s Network within the Community Groundworks (CGW) organization, to better understand the current City of Madison Water Utility fee distribution amongst the city’s community gardens. This information will be used to guide CGW on future water policy decisions in coordination with the Madison Food Policy Council’s Urban Agriculture Workgroup.
Community gardens are a vibrant part of urban areas, and have been shown to unite neighborhoods, enhance food access, and increase the sustainability of local food systems. Economic barriers make developing and maintaining community gardens quite difficult for low-income neighborhoods, however. This has become a persistent problem for Madison community gardens, and many have encountered major struggles in paying water related fees. Our interviews with experts on Madison community gardens concluded that most gardens have operated independently of one another and the Garden’s Network, and no organizational actions have been taken to set up consistent water policy. Further research sources and contacts were gathered to advise future CGW interns on how to tackle this complex issue moving forward. Policy recommendations are not advised until more is known, though suggestions for possible routes towards solutions are provided.
According to the USDA, community gardens are plots of land, usually in urban areas, that are rented by individuals or groups for private gardens or are for the benefit of the people caring for the garden. These gardens can be in backyards, rooftops, balconies, and vacant community lots (USDA, 2019). Community gardens have a long history in the US, taking off in the early 1900s during the World Wars to provide food during government rationing. Neighbors pooled resources to develop small agriculture plots in urban areas and shared the food that was grown. A federal program was developed to support these gardens, providing seed, fertilizer, and tools for gardeners. The victory gardens accounted for 44% of the fresh vegetables produced in the US during this time, but when the war ended, so did the government support of gardens (PolicyLink, 2012). Now, community and urban gardens are being developed again to support improved access to healthy food, revitalize neighborhoods, contribute to sustainability efforts, and provide jobs and education. This is especially important to low-income communities, and communities of color (PolicyLink, 2012).
Many low-income communities lack regular access to grocery stores, and minority communities are located an average of 1.1 miles farther from a supermarket than predominantly white communities (White, 2011). Low-income zip codes also have 25% fewer chain supermarkets than middle-income zip codes, and majority African American zip codes have about half the number of supermarkets compared to white zip codes, while mostly Latino zip codes have about a third as many (PolicyLink, 2012). As a result, poorer communities buy food from fringe food retailers, such as liquor stores, gas stations, dollar stores, or pharmacies. These stores specialize in the sales of alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets, and a small selection of prepackaged or canned foods that are not healthy and generally contain high levels of fat, sugar, and salt (White, 2011). Additionally, these fringe retailers rarely provide food that is culturally relevant and appropriate, hindering the preservation of tradition (White, 2011). It has been shown that adults of all backgrounds generally prefer to cook meals at home, citing home-cooked food as healthier, tastier, and cheaper. Cooking is an essential aspect of family and social life, and foods and recipes are regarded as a valuable part of cultural or familial traditions (Treuhaft et al, 2009).
Access to fresh and diverse foods is an important facet of health as well. Poor diets are the fundamental cause of nutrient deficiencies and obesity. Diet-related health problems have reached a crisis level in low-income people and people of color, causing impoverished people additional expenses in health care. Also, few of these people receive education on how to read and interpret information on the nutrition labels of food (White, 2011).
Lastly, the shortage of food access prevents neighborhood and economic development. Grocery stores provide jobs, additional business, and higher home values (Treuhaft et al, 2009). Families who participate in gardens are also able to save a lot of money. Community gardens offset approximately 30-40% of a family’s produce needs, and a garden can yield between $500 and $2,000 worth of produce per family per year. For every $1 invested in a community garden plot, $6 of produce is yielded (PolicyLink, 2012).
All these problems evidently relevant to the city of Madison and are being addressed by community gardens in Madison. Though dramatic differences in health status have emerged between socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic groups, community gardeners in Madison are remarkably diverse. Nearly 40% of families participating in community gardens in Madison reported using a primary language other than English at home, over half were people of color, and 48% reported incomes below the poverty line (Public Health, 2014).
Community gardens in Madison have had an eventful and poorly documented history. Community Gardens have been organized by multiple organizations, and the individual gardens experience rapid staff turnover. Due to this, there is little communication between gardens and no action has been taken to organize and relay information. This has caused major discrepancy between which water fees are paid by each garden. Numerous organizations are interested in establishing a more equitable water billing system, however these organizations have struggled to introduce policy suggestions due to lack of water billing background knowledge. We have taken on the responsibility of investigating and providing interested organizations with a holistic and chronological report water billing for community gardens in the city of Madison.
To fully understand the current issues gardens are facing, we reached out to a variety of individuals that have been involved in related organizations. Interviews were conducted with members of CGW, the Madison Food Policy Council, Community Action Coalition, FEED Kitchens, and the Madison Water Utility. Interviews were conducted in person and over the phone, and some individuals were sent email surveys. Water billing data was also collected and organized in order to compare the water fees between gardens. We organized the gathered information chronologically to provide a holistic report of Madison community garden policy history. Suggested future contacts and areas of research concern were organized for future CGW interns to investigate.
Madison area community gardens initially developed independently, as neighborhoods saw them as a potential resource for their community. The first group to formally organize these gardens in Madison was the Community Action Coalition (CAC). CAC is a non-profit organization that helps develop the economic and social capabilities of individuals, families, and communities (CAC, 2019). The group was created in 1966 in Dane County, though has expanded its work throughout south central Wisconsin. The CAC’s overarching goal is to work towards poverty alleviation through supporting housing, food, and clothing resources (CAC, 2019). Around 1980, the CAC began supporting gardens as community resources, and added the role of organizing community gardens to its realm of responsibilities (Mathers, April 25).
After a garden’s development, one of the most significant input costs they face is paying their water bills. During the beginning of the CAC’s management of Madison area community gardens, funding for water related expenses was provided in part by a line item within the city’s budget (Mathers, April 11). The line item provided by the city was developed to help address equity issues between gardens during their development. This funding effectively worked as a subsidy provided to community gardens in need. During this period of time water billing was a uniform flat fee for gardens, and did not yet include any non-consumption water fees. This line item gradually disappeared from the city’s budget in the early 1990s, as the CAC began receiving funding through the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) from the city of Madison (Mathers, April 11).
The CDBG is provided to the city for the funding of community development programs, which it can apply for every 2 year (Mathers, April 11). The money provided to community gardens through the CDBG is in competition with other city programs, which results in a fluctuation of funding from this source depending upon the grant cycle. The CDBG still supports gardens in Madison today, and can amount up to $50,000 in annual funding for gardens (Mathers, April 25).
Garden funding through the CDBG was not targeted specifically at water use, unlike the line item, and provided more general support of Madison community gardens. Since the structure of support varied between the line item resource and the CDBG, there was a loss of the intention of the funds as a means to create equity between gardens. In the mid-90s the CAC geared the community gardens they worked with towards more independant management, with their plot fees being locally organized (Mathers, April 11). The shift put CAC in more of a coordinator role, leaving the community gardens to become semi-autonomous in managing their development and expenses.
The CAC had received additional funding through the Madison Community Foundation around 2007 as a part of its New Garden Fund, which has since changed its name to the Mini Garden Grant program (Brockle, April 18). With the grant resource, during the 2007-2011 seasons the CAC devoted their money and efforts into establishing new gardens. A lot of the CAC’s work involved installing new water systems for these gardens, since water systems are one of the most significant input costs for garden establishment. These efforts helped raise the amount of community gardens in the Madison area from close to 18 in 2003, to the over 40 gardens that are in the area today (Brockle, April 18). The community interest for expanding gardens within Madison was further fueled by the concurrent 2008 financial crisis, as a way for people to decrease their spending through growing supplemental food for themselves (Brockle, April 18).
The Madison Community Foundation grant on average provided $100,000 each grant cycle, for community garden expansion within the city. The New Garden Fund also required that once established, participating gardens would contribute some of their incoming fees into a fund to generate more new gardens (Brockle, April 18). Grants through the Madison Community Foundation have been awarded to community gardens in the area at different points throughout their history. However, the grants support 3 year projects, and therefore are not a consistent source of funding for overall garden operations (Mathers, April 25). The Foundation’s grants may also be awarded to projects with multiple partners, varying the amount of funds given directly to the gardens themselves. Additional grants have further provided gardens support over the years, with the CAC itself contributing a significant amount through their own community services funds (Mathers, April 25).
During the creation of new gardens, the water systems that were installed with the aid of CAC were not always constructed using the same water sources, further complicating the matter of water access between gardens. Presently, there is still an inconsistency in water usage billing, where two Madison area gardens receive flat rates, as opposed to the rest which have metered water use (Mathers, April 25). When gardens were only billed for water consumption fees for the use of the utility, the bills were also at times distributed or paid for differently between gardens. Some bills were sent to the CAC, others were sent to the garden itself, or to a member of a particular community garden. When low income gardens were unable to cover their bills, the CAC then occasionally used its grant money to cover the costs (Brockle, April 18).
As new gardens developed over the years there was a lack of consistency with the customer type that each garden was billed as. Since there is no customer billing category for community gardens specifically, each garden was individually placed into the existing categories that seemingly approximated their property type (Mathers, April 11). The customer classes gardens qualify as now include the municipal and government, stormwater, or commercial categories (Worachek, 2019). The types of hydrants used by Madison community gardens further fall into their own two categories. Hydrants can either be within the fire protection system, or are internal hydrants independent from fire protection uses (Mathers, April 25). The water usage bills between these systems remain consistent across the board, but their difference has an impact when non-consumption fees are added to Water Utility bills.
Around 2010 the Water Utility shifted its customer billing to be paid monthly instead of annually, in hopes to encourage more conscious water use and conservation (Mathers, April 18). With non-consumption water fees being added onto water bills in the Madison around 2012, the monthly billing plan required more fees to be paid by customers than would have been paid annually (Brockle, April 18). The non-consumption water fees currently include sewer rates, stormwater rates, an urban forestry special charge, a landfill charge, and an additional public fire protection fee (Madison Water Utility, 2019). However, not all community gardens pay the same fees, since some gardens have receive exemptions from certain charges, while others receive different rates for specific fees due to the customer class they are listed under (Worachek, 2019).
As non-consumption fees were added to Madison area Water Utility bills, and new gardens were being developed, decisions were made by the Water Utility as to what each garden should be billed for. The billing decisions were essentially made independently from the rates of other community gardens in Madison. Fees decisions were complicated by staff turnover within departments, as well as individual Water Utility fees being charged to customers through different departments (Mathers, April 11). The lack of communication between staff and different billing departments created inexplicable inequalities between community gardens’ water bills. The billing of garden non-consumption water fees eventually became a legacy of the initial fee decisions that were perpetuated over time, with discrepancies between fees remaining unnoticed (Mathers, April 11). As unfortunate as the result may be, it is worth noting that there was no advocacy by the gardens or intention by the Water Utility, that caused the inequitable charges or exemptions from non-consumption water fees.
In 2014 the CAC reevaluated its mission and role in organizing the gardens. At this point they determined that they should refocus their objective towards helping low income and food pantry resource gardens, rather than all of the gardens they were managing at the time (Mathers, April 11). As the CAC left its role managing community gardens within and around the Madison area, Community Groundworks and Dane County Extensions transitioned into its place, forming the Gardens Network. As a management system, the Gardens Network has a legal contract, and leases land for 22 gardens within Dane County, though has a wider network of additional non-contracted gardens (Mathers, April 18). Though the Gardens Network leases land to gardens, they do not collect plot fees from any of them. Without all of the billing and income information going to the Gardens network, the financial states and water billing statuses are uncertain for a number of gardens.
Working through some of this financial uncertainty, the Gardens Network has also been picking up some of the Water Utility bills from gardens unable to pay them for themselves, as the CAC had (Mathers, April 18). In addition to the economic barriers of water bills and input expenses, rapid staff turnover also presents a complication for gardens. Gardens like Meadowood have tried to develop solutions to keep up with their expenses (Brockle, April 18). However, garden leaders can struggle with support for funding solutions, as they also see high turnover rates with their members (Strom, 2019).
Having different customer classes, types of hydrants, and non-consumption fees for community gardens affects what gardens are expected to pay to the Water Utility, and creates inequity issues between these gardens. Most of the water payment schemes for gardens that exist today, are relics of what individual gardens were registered as initially, or what individual departments within the Water Utility at one point decided individual gardens had to pay. Without standardizing these payments, the current method of water billing for community gardens does not accurately or effectively reflect what they should owe. Due to the variety garden sizes, plot fees may put more or less of an economic burden upon its members (Sheikh, 2019). Gardens with higher amounts of low income members then have a disproportionate economic barrier to successfully running their community garden. Non-consumption water fees then complicate the issue by charging some gardens more for the same service and land use. Since non-consumption water fees also do not respond to conservation practices, there is no direct way that community gardens can lessen the strain that these fees have on their budgets. Saving money as a garden through conserving on the water usage end of their budget may also not be effective for gardens, since the cost of consumptive water use historically increased (Mathers, April 11). Therefore, a means to either subsidize or standardize non-consumption water fees should be instituted to make community gardens economically viable throughout the Madison area.
Tables & Figures
Non-Consumption Water Fees and Customer Class for Select Madison Community Gardens
Flat rate $19.51
Flat rate $17.48
*Community Gardens listed only include those for which water billing data was made available to Community Groundworks (Worachek, 2019)
Water Usage Rates and Non-consumption Water Fee Rates for the City of Madison
Community Garden Exemption
Billed for Madison Water Utility
Average monthly residential water charge: $26.52 Water Usage Charge (per 1,000 gallons):
Billed for City of Madison Engineering
Sewer Usage Charge (per 1,000 gallons): $3.03
Aldo Leopold, Elvehjem, Reindahl, & Eastmorland gardens not charged
Billed for City of Madison Engineering
Pervious: $0.18 (per 1,000 square feet)
Impervious: $2.45 (per 1,000 square feet)
Quann garden not charged
Urban Forestry Special Charge
Billed for City of Madison Parks
Quann garden not charged
Billed for City of Madison Engineering
This report features a handful of limitations. Upon taking on this project, we found this issue to be incredibly complex and difficult to understand. There has not been much documentation of what has happened up to this point, and it took multiple weeks and interviews to fully grasp all the different aspects of this issue. There has also been a great deal of turnover within CGW, the Garden’s Network, and at the gardens themselves. This has lead to miscommunications and instances where certain individuals have left without passing on acquired knowledge and expertise. Our work was also limited by the availability of those we needed to work with. Because many of the individuals who work for and provide support to community gardens are volunteers, they hold full-time employment outside of CGW.
Another major limiting factor on our work was the lack of concrete data for all community gardens in Madison. Only 20 of Madison’s gardens hold leases with the city, and further, only 13 have leases through CWG. We were only able to gather data for these 13, since their water bills are sent directly to CWG. This is a very small dataset, and further research needs to be done to better serve all community gardens in Madison. We were also unable to access demographic information for all community gardens, which presents additional concerns of inequity since not all parties are adequately represented.
Due to the inequity of economic barriers between Madison area community gardens, we suggest that the Water Utility bills paid by gardens be standardized. To standardize payment, our group recommends that a new customer class be created specifically for community gardens. Within the garden-specific customer class, the community gardens should not be charged for non-water consumption fees, and only be charged for their water usage. As residents, garden members already pay non-water consumption fees to the city. Therefore, garden members are paying these fees twice. Furthermore, their billing with the Water Utility should revert to an annual payment plan. Garden water use would then only need to be paid once a year, for their consumption during the growing season Additionally, if gardens managed by the Gardens Network were to pay their plot fees and water bills through the Network, Community Groundworks could collect a small maintenance fee in order to support gardens through emergencies and large projects. Gardens would be encouraged to be in the Network to use this fund as an economic safety net, and to simplify their payment process.
Madison community gardens have a long history of acting independent of one another and the city government, and both garden leaders and government officials have failed to make progress toward establishing an equitable and consistent water billing system. This is due to the diverse organizational structure of the gardens, high turnover of garden coordinators, lack of classification consistency, and failed communication amongst all parties. By providing our gathered research and data to the Urban Agriculture Work Group, Madison Food Policy Council, Community Groundworks, the Gardens Network, and future volunteers and interns, we hope to have a profound impact on the water billing policy for Madison community gardens and the communities that rely on them for accessible and sustainable local food systems.
Gardens provide locally grown and organic food for plot owners. They also reduce emissions by eliminating the transportation, distribution, and preservation aspect of corporate farms. In addition, gardens without sufficient funding will be more likely to buy conventional, environmentally harmful fertilizers and pesticides.
Every $1 put into a garden plot will yield about $6 of produce, and families can save $500-$2000 a year by growing produce in a community garden. The money saved can be invested to stimulate the economy elsewhere. Money provided to community gardens also stays within the town or city, benefiting local economies rather than large corporations. Less wealthy gardens may struggle to take advantage of these benefits since most of the money they bring in go towards repairs and maintenance, and they are unable to invest in technology and supplies to support their members.
Gardens can provide inexpensive and nutrient-rich food for marginalized communities, and are incredibly important in food deserts (areas that are located far from a grocery store). They also can help provide culturally appropriate food for people of all backgrounds. This creates a healthier and more connected community. People of all races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic statuses can benefit by becoming a member of a local community gardens.
Brockle, Chris. Personal interview. April 18, 2019.
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Mathers, Joe. Personal interview. April 11, 2019.
Mathers, Joe. Personal interview. April 18, 2019.
Mathers, Joe. Personal interview. April 25, 2019.
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We would like to thank the Madison Food Policy Council Urban Ag Workgroup, and Community Groundworks, including the following individuals: Chris Brockle, Joe Mathers, Martin Bailkey, George Reistad, Morgan Worachek, Shelly Strom, and many others. Our project would not have been possible without their knowledge and expertise. We would also like to thank Dr. Michel Wattiaux and Bailey Fritsch for their guidance this semester.
Ally Magnin is a junior at UW-Madison studying Environmental Sciences with a certificate in Sustainability. Her interests include sustainable agriculture, land restoration, agroecology, and conservation biology. She currently is employed with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the UW-Madison Office of Sustainability.
Emma Schmidt is a junior at UW Madison studying Environmental Sciences with certificates in Sustainability and Food Systems. She hopes to work to create sustainable food systems in the future. She is currently working for the Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center. Outside of school she like to hike, snowshoe, bike, and read.
Delaney Gobster is a junior at UW-Madison studying environmental science and agronomy. She currently works for Slow Food UW, F.H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture, and REAP Food Group. Delaney has enjoyed working with the Madison Food Policy Council on this research, and hopes to do more food systems work in the future.