2021 Winner

The Community Food Forest at the La Crosse Area Family YMCA

The La Crosse Area Family YMCA’s Community Food Forest began with a desire to increase access to healthy food in our community. Local YMCA leaders wanted to produce food, share it, and demonstrate an easily-replicable urban food production model. As the project progressed, they learned it would also provide runoff management that is equally vital to our community.



Two simple runoff reduction strategies are in use at the Food Forest and adjacent parking lot. Water is diverted to swales (low areas) where it is held and absorbed within hours. And thirsty, long-rooted native plants soak up rain and melting snow, hold soil, and build soil quality.

The Food Forest is located at the corner of Main Street and West Avenue in La Crosse, between the east side of the Family YMCA building and West Avenue. Visit to wander pathways and see first-hand how two-foot high swales hold rain during downpours, capture hundreds of gallons of stormwater, feed native food bearing plants, and keep stormwater out of street drains and the city sewer system. Note that food plants are clustered where they receive direct rainfall and relatively clean stormwater from the roof, and not in the deeper infiltration basins that receive chemical pollutants from the adjacent parking lot.



“I think back to the summer of 2016,” said Lee Walraven, the YMCA’s former Director of Healthy Living, “when we’d just installed 90% of the food forest. There was a massive storm, and standing water in West Avenue was coming up over the road and onto the sidewalk. It was bad! But in the food forest, not a drop of water ran off. Water came to the very top of each swale, but it never went over. Essentially, every drop of water that landed in the food forest soaked into the ground where it fell. It was amazing to see.”
Since then, the Food Forest has become a community engagement project that grows abundant food, keeps runoff out of local waterways, rehabilitates the urban ecosystem, and provides education for healthier lifestyles.

“The overwhelming reaction to the Food Forest is LOVE!” continues Walraven. “We grow so much food that we have to actively find ways to give it away, often donating to local food pantries. On summer evenings we host ‘Learn and Grow Nights’, inviting the community to help plant, harvest and learn to grow food forests at home. Sometimes we’ve had 80 people show up!”

Congratulations to La Crosse Area Family YMCA for an inspiring project. You can read the full interview with the Community Food Forest at the YMCA HERE.