Class Act: Caroline Hanson and the ‘Patio Tomato Project’

For sophomore genetics major Caroline Hanson, growing tomatoes goes beyond community gardens and farms. It could be the key to healthier lifestyles.

With that in mind, she teamed up with campus and community partners in summer 2017 to distribute free patio tomato plants to low-income families, introducing them to easy, low-maintenance gardening that yields health benefits and encourages long-term healthy practices.

Hanson’s interest in food security began to take root after completing a First-Year Interest Group seminar in plant pathology with professor Jeri Barak-Cunningham. The course inspired her to secure a Wisconsin Idea Fellowship from UW–Madison’s Morgridge Center for Public Service to help pay for the materials for her project. As a part of the grant, she proposed teaming up with the River Food Pantry on Madison’s north side to distribute the tomato plants. Hanson and her team of fellow CALS students grew the project’s cherry tomatoes in two campus locations and then transplanted them into donated five-gallon buckets that act as inexpensive patio pots.

When distributing the plants during workshops at the pantry and community centers on Madison’s north side, the team provides tomato care instructions, recipes, and arts and crafts for kids. They also offer free samples of dishes that incorporate cherry tomatoes — cheddar tomato cobbler, tomato risotto, parmesan tomato chips — many of which can be made for $4 or less. The workshops get families involved in working with vegetables and understanding more about healthy lifestyles.

“The health benefits are obvious, and you see kids become passionate about something they can do on their own and is good for them and is good for their community,” Hanson says.

The project was initially slated for a single summer, but Hanson is working with different organizations to secure funding for another year and eventually make it an official student organization. With possible expansion, Hanson is determined to keep the project simple and rooted in helping people.

“What we love about this project is, even if you can’t start a community garden, it’s focused on container gardening,” Hanson says. “You don’t need a fancy gardening system. You can just get a bucket and some dirt, and you can get to work.”