For Master Gardener Volunteers

Master Gardener Volunteers play very important roles

What you can bring to the program:

  • Networking Connections
  • Planning Education
  • Cultivating Education
  • Maintenance Education
  • Troubleshooting
  • Specialized Education

FoodWIse as a collaborative partner

FoodWIse is a UW-Extension nutrition education program that helps limited resource families and individuals choose healthful diets, purchase and prepare healthful food and handle it safely, and become more food secure by spending their food dollars wisely. FoodWIse is funded by federal dollars.

What they can bring to the program:

  • Networking Connections
  • Planning Educational Sessions
  • Nutrition Education
  • Safe Produce Handling
  • Nutritious Recipes
  • List of area Food Banks and Pantries

FoodWIse Program Introduction


FoodWIse Program Introduction

FoodWIse is a federally funded effort that seeks to empower Wisconsin residents with limited incomes to make healthy choices to achieve healthy lives and reduce health disparities. We have nutrition coordinators and educators that work out of county Cooperative Extension offices in most Wisconsin counties. You may have heard about our work but may not know exactly what we do. I hope to use this time to better explain who our nutrition staff are and their role within our extension family.

Brief History

The FoodWise program was formally known as the Wisconsin Nutrition Education Program or WNEP until fall of 2016 when shifted our program name. FoodWIse is part of the Family Living Programs and works out of county Cooperative Extension offices and in collaboration with state and local partners. We are active in 66 of 72 Wisconsin counties. Our program funders include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education or SNAP-Ed and the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program or EFNEP. SNAP-Ed makes up the majority of our program dollars. Because of this funding, our intended target audience includes families and individuals who are participating in or are eligible to receive federal food assistance. The largest federal food assistance program is known as SNAP – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. This program is known as FoodShare in Wisconsin and was previously referred to as food stamps.

FoodWIse has a long historical legacy of providing nutrition education to Wisconsin families and individuals with limited incomes, however recently our program funding has shifted to expand the scope of our efforts to include supporting communities in making the healthy choice, the easy choice where people live, learn, work and play – gardens can play a role in this effort.

How it fits into Extension

FoodWIse operates within the umbrella of the Family Living Programs of the University of Wisconsin-Extension, Cooperative Extension. Just as the Master Gardener Program shares unbiased, researched-based information pertaining to horticulture and the environment, FoodWIse efforts are supported by research-based information on nutrition and food safety. State specialists in nutritional sciences and food science offer support to the FoodWIse county programs. FoodWIse Nutrition Coordinators or Administrators oversee the nutrition education in the 66 participating county offices and work with community partners to develop collaborative efforts supporting healthy eating and active living for individuals with limited incomes. Most county offices also include Nutrition Educators whose primary role is to provide direct education to our target audience.


FoodWIse and the Master Gardener Volunteer Program are very different in structure and oversight. Due to the federal funding expectations and regulations, FoodWIse has to follow rigid guidelines and reporting expectations. The target audience must meet the same income eligibility guidelines for participation in federal programs such as SNAP or other means-tested Federal assistance programs like Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. FoodWIse has developed program delivery models that guide our statewide approach for delivering nutrition education. These models include a listing of approved evidence-based curriculum and community approaches, evaluation tools and reporting requirements and all intervention strategies encourage healthier choices based on the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Dietary Guidelines provide food-based recommendations for people age 2 and older and its primary focus is promoting overall health and preventing – rather than treating – chronic disease in the U.S.

FoodWIse does not have a volunteer base like the Master Gardener Program, but works closely with many community agencies, organizations, and partners to expand the reach of our program efforts.


FoodWIse partners with community service organizations that serve those with limited income such as WIC, schools, Head Start, food pantries, low-income housing, meal sites, and shelters, among others. As previously mentioned, our federal funding guidance mandates that a majority (at least 50%) of our program participants be income-eligible to participate in SNAP or other means-tested Federal assistance programs like Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, as well as individuals residing in communities with a significant low income population. All direct education as well as community-based program efforts must intentionally target a limited income audience. FoodWise works with a very diverse audience and is trained to teach culturally relevant nutrition based education.


Nutrition education staff are trained to delivery culturally relevant and learner centered education based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In addition to access to evidence-based curriculum in support of direct education programming focused on topics such as healthy eating behaviors, stretching your food dollar, and preparing and storing food safely, FoodWIse staff bring research based information regarding ways communities can facilitate policies and environments that help make the healthy choice, the easy choice where people live, learn, work, and play.


FoodWIse develops program agreements with partners on an annual basis, typically during the spring. Our work with partners supports the delivery of direct education efforts, as well as serves as an opportunity to leverage our federal funds to help create healthier communities. We hope that partnering with the Master Gardener Program will help us further our reach in the community and strengthen program capacity to facilitate healthy eating behaviors among limited income audiences.

Our federal funding dictates the scope and target audience of our work, and it also means that we have specific reporting requirements that influence how we collect data. These are things FoodWIse staff are all used to, but can come across as daunting for those just learning the program! We do our best to keep the processes streamlined and accessible.

Because our programs are developed based on the needs of the specific community, not all FoodWIse projects look the same from county to county. Therefore GardenWIse program volunteer opportunities may look a little different depending on the county and may include varying levels of engagement, from weeding/watering, to collecting garden produce for donation at a food pantry, to serving as a co-teacher alongside our nutrition educators in a garden-based setting and everything in between. We look forward to working with Master Gardener Volunteers to identify the most appropriate ways to partner effectively.

Getting Started

We are looking for Master Gardener Volunteers willing to help us extend our programming reach and GardenWIse’s goal of working towards improved food security, safety and health for limited income individuals and families in Wisconsin. Please contact your local county Nutrition Education Coordinator to learn more about existing or new opportunities to engage the FoodWIse target audience in developing healthy eating habits through gardening.

Nutrition Educators

Teaching Low-Income Audiences


inmates gardening

For 6 years I was part of a group who worked with incarcerated individuals from the county jail in a half acre community garden.  I can admit now, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.  We made lessons ahead of time and planned all these activities to do over the course of several days.  When it came time for the first day of the program the group of guys came out and things were fine.  The next day, a different group of guys were sent out so we had to repeat the lesson.  On day 3, we were back to the first group and it was raining, so we had to scramble to find something to do.  We quickly learned that sometimes a successful garden program cannot be dictated by a syllabus! For this program we quickly course corrected.  We realized this program was necessarily about the participants learning everything there is to know about a carrot, but, instead, to find gardening to be a positive experience.  Instead of focusing on lessons on soil fertility, we focused on completing tasks on time, working as groups, and using respectful language throughout the program.  The master gardener volunteers and educators involved stopped lecturing, and instead began role modeling behaviors expected in the garden.  We DID teach when the opportunities came up!  We had to explain how things went in the ground, what were weeds and what weren’t, how to water properly, when to harvest.  And we celebrated those milestones as we went along through the growing season.  

As I look back on these experiences of using authentic gardening to engage our audiences, I realize we were using many principles and practices one would use in a horticultural therapy program.  That is, we used the process of gardening to engage our audience to reach the desired goals.  This didn’t involve making copies of handouts, lectures, or quizzes.  It was us working alongside the participating individuals so they could be successful in the garden.  And along with that we saw them not only learning about the garden, and plants, and bugs, but also watching their confidence and aspirations grow and what they wanted their new future to be.

“Authentic Gardening” as I’ve come to call it, can be just as educational as any lecture I can give.  For the scope of this GardenWISE project, our target audience are individuals who live at or below the poverty line.  As the master gardener volunteer, you won’t necessarily know that.  While you’re gardening you could work with anyone that comes into the garden space.  But keep the following ideas in mind while you’re engaging them in the planting, picking, watering, and all the other stuff that goes on in the garden.  They can be useful ideas for any new gardener you encounter.

(The following is adapted from Challenges, Alternatives, and Educational Strategies in Reaching Limited Income Audiences, in the Journal of Extension.)

  • Using fun and interactive hands-on lessons. Gardening is full of these types of learning opportunities.  But your gardeners may be wary of the soils or insects, so keep gloves and tools on hand to help them ease into things.   
  • Limiting the use of lectures.  Demonstrate how to do the task correctly and explain why it needs to be done.  Explain more if they ask to know more.  And keep the language simple– save the scientific names for later.
  • Listening to clients and getting to know them personally.  Name tags for both cultivars and participants can be useful to make this connection.  Also, in addition to knowing the growing conditions for the plants, take some time to learn something about the participant– Have they gardened before?  What do they like to eat from the garden? How interested are they in gardening?  
  • Involving clients in the lesson.  Give participants options and choice in choosing what needs to get done that day..
  • Creating a non-threatening and welcoming learning environment.  Plants may be okay with your language and tone, but other gardeners may find you abrasive.  Watch not only what you say but how you say it.  Reinforce a welcoming environment with friendly signage in the garden.
  • Using information sharing sessions to create a dialogue with the participants.  When learning moments occur in the garden, include everybody.  Talk about how the day went, what was learned, and what was found in the garden.
  • Using quick and easy hands-on gardening tasks (30 minutes or less).  Keep it fun but not dragging things on too long.  
  • Using lessons that encourage small changes that are practical.  Success in the garden doesn’t happen overnight.  Keep encouraging participants through the ups and downs of the garden season and celebrate the small milestones.
  • Splitting large groups into small (10 or less) working groups for delivering the training session.  Keep it personal by keeping groups on the small side.  Recruit other gardeners as back-up in case you need them.
  • Using music when teaching physical activity. Music can help with mindfulness in the garden.  Find a station everyone can agree on or consider taking turns choosing the station. 
  • Distribution of useful gardening tools or certificates as incentives for participants to practice what they learn at home. Ultimately we want the participants to be able to do this on their own.  Give them the tools and confidence to do so!

Hindsight is 20/20.  I wish I could go back and tell my younger self some of this.  Please keep these points in mind as you garden with groups in the future.