Interview with Community Food Forest at the YMCA

The purpose of the project was to be a food forest…was controlling runoff an important topic from the beginning?

The initial discussion on the FF was more landscape and beautification but as we worked  we learned more about how we could control runoff and how these spaces play such a vital role in runoff. I think back to a summer rainstorm in 2016 and we had just installed 90% of the FF. That day La Crosse got a major downpour and I remember West Ave having standing water coming up over the road onto the sidewalk, but in the FF not a drop of water ran off. Each swale had water to the top but it never went over. Essentially every drop of water that landed in the FF was soaked up into the FF unlike the waterlogged streets.

How did you feel when you first found out that the YMCA was nominated for The Soak it Up! Project Award?

Very excited! We love the FF and we are excited to hear it is being recognized! As we built the FF we didn’t build it with the intention of being recognized for an award but we know the importance of bringing awareness to projects like this one. As more people see how these spaces can be incorporated into residential and commercial spaces we will start to see a real impact on stormwater runoff!

It seems like this project involved many more groups/organizations than the Y. Talk to me about the collaboration. How did it start and why did it work so well?

It all started with our Pioneering Healthier Communities (PHC) Coordinator being a part of conversations in the community when the FF was being planned at another location. When that location fell through, the Y was in the middle of the building expansion project and it was just one of those “stars aligning” opportunities. We had tore up that portion of the Y already, so why not replace it with this food forest? From there things just kept aligning and became a beautiful project.

Tell me about the process before the landscaping was done. What needs, wants and expectations did you have?

To come up with the design of the FF we held 2-3 community planning sessions. Coulee Region Ecoscapes (CRE) facilitated these community planning sessions and we coupled it as an education on sustainability. CRE did a class on sustainability and then each participant drew their own version of what the Food Forest (FF) would look like at completion. CRE then took these ideas and used them as inspiration from the final design of the FF. Our biggest need for the space was that we wanted a space that would have minimal maintenance and that it would produce food for the community to eat. Honestly, we wanted the bare minimum and with that, CRE was still able to design a spectacular space.

Can you tell me about the various mitigation projects within the food forest?

The biggest mitigation project is the numerous swales that have been created between the rows of vegetation. Each swale is about 2 feet high and holds the majority of the rain when we have downpours. The other aspect of mitigation is the use of native plants and perennials. With these plants, we have plants that have deep roots. In this process, we have deep roots that hold the swales in place and the use of the swales keeps 100s of gallons of water in the FF vs onto the roads/sewer systems.

Were volunteers utilized throughout the project? Where did they come from? Do you continue to utilize volunteers in the FF?

Yes, volunteers were utilized throughout the project. Everything from rolling wheelbarrows of mulch to direct planting of plants, and everything in between. The volunteers showed up somewhat naturally through mass communication via social media and then targeted communication to the neighborhoods and other special interest groups in the community. We leveraged our relationships and connections to these groups to engage them with Learn and Grown Nights where we continued to build on the FF while also providing education. Coulee Region Ecoscapes provided the expertise on planting and design but the volunteers did a significant portion of the work! We plan to continue to have volunteers in the FF. Time will tell what that all looks like as we try to recover through and after COVID.

Tell me about the “Learn and Grow Nights”. Who came up with this idea? What was the initial goal/purpose? Did you think they would be as successful as they have become? What do these Learn & Grow Nights look like in the future?

These were the brainchild of a PHC Coordinator. They really started organically from work nights where volunteers just came to help do the work. But as the nights required less work and we didn’t need as much help but we wanted to keep the engagement, that is when we switched to Learn and Grow Nights. We wanted to continue the education for participants as well as some minimal upkeep of the FF. At our peak we had 80+ volunteers show up for a L&G Night and we would have never expected something like that ever at the Y! The future is yet to be determined on what they’ll look like. I’m hopeful that we will recover as an organization and be able to put resources back to these kinds of projects.

Talk to me about everyone’s reaction after the landscaping was installed. Overall, what do you think of the landscaping on your property? What are your favorite parts? Is there anything you wish you would have done differently?

The overwhelming reaction to the FF is LOVE! We grow so much food in the FF that we have to actively try to find ways to give it away. We often harvest so much extra food that we will bring it to the Salvation Army to have them add it to their food for the shelter clients. It is pretty crazy for us as an organization bc we first planted the FF as an eco-friendly landscaping project and as we started to plant it we found it to be a huge community engagement project! In the summer evenings, we would host “Learn and Grow Nights” in which we invited the community to come help plant the FF and learn how to plant their own FF. We would have up to 80 people just show up to help! It was crazy and we’ve continued these Learn and Grow Nights ever since then and we regularly have people showing up just to help and also pick food. So easily we forget that people always gather around food!


Coulee Region Ecoscapes does the managing of the FF.  They are at the Y providing management of our landscaping and grounds and at the same time provide maintenance of the FF. 


I would say for an organization we are always trying to find ways to improve our operations to become more sustainable. As a not for profit, we don’t have extra funds to do various over-the-top sustainability projects but we also understand that we don’t need to do these huge, extravagant projects. We just need to look at our operations and continue to analyze them for how we can make them more sustainable. This is often seen in our special events and various operations internally. It’s not a driving force for us in program design but rather always a question in program design of how we can make it more sustainable.


Truly hard to say. We are hopeful that we can recover in a really strong manner and be able to put resources back to this project.  Right now it’s just really hard to think past the next year.  We will continue to support the space and provide food to our community but the programming of the space will take time and resources. I wish I could give you a better vision of the future.  Right now this space is limping along with staff pulled in 50 different directions.  I’m hopeful that we can bring support back to this space for programming but right now we are just trying to keep it thriving so that when the time is right we can come back to programming it.


100% As I stated before we did education sessions with the community during implementation to help educate the community on how they could do even small FFs at their house. Not all projects need to be as big as the FF. We also hold an annual education session on building a FF to keep this information regularly being pushed into the community.