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Sharing the Harvest

Local farmers help to feed the hungry

Nov. 21, 2007
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“People talk about wanting to eat healthy food, but they never talk about the food system,” said Will Allen, executive director of the visionary urban farm Growing Power. The food system encompasses not only the farmer—which includes small sustainable farms and urban gardeners—but also the consumer, both the upscale foodies and those who can’t afford or don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

And those who lack a proper diet comprise a too-large portion of our society. According to a study just released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 11% of Americans are “food insecure,” which is defined as not having enough to eat. In Wisconsin, about 8.9% of households are “food insecure” and 2.7% have “very low” food security—at least one member of the household is skipping meals because of lack of income or resources to purchase food. An emerging food justice movement is now focusing on locally produced food’s role in alleviating food insecurity. They say that affordable local food made available to low-income people is a relatively simple and sustainable solution to a complex problem. And, advocates say, it has the potential to not only improve hungry people’s health, but to make Milwaukee a more livable, just city and to preserve our dwindling greenspace.

“It’s been quite encouraging to see this convergence of green, urban agriculture and ‘buy local,’ and the interest in systemic reasons behind food insecurity,” said Young Kim, director of the Fondy Food Center on Fond du Lac Avenue. “But my concern is that as people push for local food that we don’t leave out the low-income folks.”

Even the Slow Food movement has become focused on food justice, both locally and internationally. The organization’s founder and president, Carlo Petrini, has changed the group’s mission to include “good, clean and fair food.” The local chapter is following suit by bringing attention to our area’s food needs. “Every individual has the right to eat healthy food,” said Martha Davis Kipcak, head of the southeastern Wisconsin Slow Food chapter and the Kitchen Table Project.

These issues will be the focus of a February 2008 Milwaukee Urban Agriculture Conference. But until then, urban farmers are finding innovative ways to provide Milwaukee’s needy with the fresh fruits and vegetables they require.

A Food Desert Amid Plenty

It seems that each week metro Milwaukee welcomes a new upscale, full-service grocery store full of perfect, sometimes even organic, fresh fruits and vegetables.

But not everyone is sharing the bounty. According to those who observe Milwaukee’s food system—which runs from farm to store to fork—the city has areas of “food deserts,” locations that don’t have a grocery store with affordable fresh food.

In these neighborhoods, residents must either shop at corner convenience stores, which are filled with overpriced, processed junk food, or travel more than a mile to shop in a proper grocery store. In Milwaukee, food deserts are most likely found on the near North Side and the South Side. “It was a trend in retailing where supermarkets left the inner city and folks in the inner city traveled to the outlying areas for food,” said Welford Sanders, assistant adjunct professor at the UW-Milwaukee Department of Architecture and Urban Planning. He said that grocers argued that the inner city was too unsafe for retail outlets, and the loss of businesses led to even more unstable neighborhoods for residents and entrepreneurs. In these food deserts, fast food is often the easiest and seemingly cheapest solution to one’s hunger. Kipcak said that she understands the temptation one feels when faced with 99-cent menus at burger chains.

“You walk away with a full belly,” Kipcak said. “Unfortunately, what that doesn’t reveal is the true cost of food—the cost to our society, as well as the cost to our community, and to the individual and their long-term health.”

Sanders said that some grocers, such as Lena’s and Jewel-Osco (now closed and being operated by other grocers), did move back into the city and are thriving. But he said that some neighborhoods still lack full-service grocery stores with competitive prices. Sanders, who is on the board of both Growing Power and the Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp., said that he’s hoping to locate a Growing Power outlet on King Drive between Center and Locust, near the Ameritech King Commerce Center. “There isn’t a supermarket or even a fullservice midsize grocery story anywhere within walking distance,” Sanders said. Sanders noted that as the King Drive area attracts more homeowners and businesses, grocery stores must be part of the retail mix.

“The more activity there is on the street, the more stores there are, and the safer it is,”

Sanders said. “I think retailers are beginning to recognize that. And with some improvements in the surrounding area, and the residential stock, it really begins to work out. But one of the real missing ingredients in the area is having better offerings of fresh foods and food products.”

Sanders said the city could help boost grocery outlets by offering grants or tax incremental financing for developments that include full-service groceries. And businesspeople could see the opportunities in the city for a variety of food stores. “We need people to step up and do it,” he said.

Enter the Farmers

The irony is that Milwaukee’s food deserts exist in a city that hosts community gardens and is surrounded by miles and miles of farmland. So it’s no surprise that local farms are helping to alleviate Milwaukee’s food insecurity.

One of the largest—and most unique— farm projects was launched by the Hunger Task Force, which signed a longterm lease with Milwaukee County for the farm at the House of Correction in Franklin. The farm fed the inmates there until the food service was privatized; this year, about 355,000 pounds of fresh produce was supplied to the city’s food pantries and soup kitchens. Two county employees work part-time for the farm, and inmates still work there. Private donors provide the rest of the resources, such as farm equipment and funds.

Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force, said that those visiting food pantries or soup kitchens are now able to eat food that’s just been picked, as if they were shopping at a Saturday farmers’ market or working in their own garden. She said that Wisconsin staples such as potatoes and carrots are harvested, as well as more culturally specific food such as Napa cabbage. Abeekeeper also makes the rounds on the farm, and donors provided funds to plant another 4 acres of trees that will bear apples during the decade to come.

“Nobody is being charged anything for the food,” Tussler said. “It will get picked up and delivered from farm to the pantry, or from the farm to the homeless shelter or soup kitchen, without ever stopping at the food bank itself. It’s not placed in storage. It’s more immediate than the produce you can buy at your local grocery store.”

Tussler said that she isn’t aware of any other food banks that run their own farms, but said the experience has been a success for both her organization and those it serves. “We like being unique,” Tussler said.

“We like the farm. It’s like nature’s paradise out there. You haven’t really lived until you’ve been on the back of a truck and pull up to one of the pantries and the people are excited about the food. It’s a good feeling.” Tussler said that the addition of fresh food has done more than just feed hungry people. It’s restoring a sense of dignity to people who are going through a rough time. “It says that we care about you, it says that we’re concerned about your health,” Tussler said. “The fact that it’s been grown and delivered directly—and isn’t somebody’s leftover produce or has been sitting around for a period of time—is really cool.” Farmers’ Markets and Gardeners Fill the Void The decade-long awareness of the city’s food deserts led to the expansion of farmers’ markets throughout the metropolitan area. Two markets—the Fondy Food Center and the Mitchell Street farmers’ market—were upgraded specifically to cater to those who are underserved by local grocers. Kim, of the Fondy Food Center, said that his market was established in the 1970s, then was run by the city and Hunger Task Force, and now is a nonprofit venture.

Kim said Fondy takes a farm-to-fork approach in assessing what producers and consumers need. “We’re not just a farmers’ market,” Kim said. “We see ourselves as literally working from the farm to the fork. We go out to the farms and find out what the farmers’ issues are, why they’re not having success with certain crops. Good food starts on the farm and it ends on people’s plates. And every step of the way there are some obstacles.” Most of Fondy’s suppliers are Hmong farmers who practice what Kim calls “micro-farming”—farming by hand on 4 to 10 acres of land—and offer their produce for very low prices. Kim said farming provides a second income for these families and helps them stay connected not only to each other, but to their culture. “Hmong farmers for the most part do things by hand,” Kim said. “They are the antithesis of factory farming. The largest piece of equipment I’ve seen on a Hmong farm has been a rototiller. And agriculture has such a central role in the Hmong culture. They are very gifted farmers—they can grow anything.” Kim said most of Fondy’s customers live within 3 miles of the market and are primarily African American. He said that a lot of the market’s produce is traditional—such as green tomatoes and collard and mustard greens—but that he hopes that cooks are open to preparing them in healthful ways.

“I think that we can take some of those cultural standards and tweak them a bit and still have the foods that people love but not necessarily be bad for you,” Kim said. But he added that not everyone is able to prepare the fresh food. “People often don’t have a pot to cook in,” Kim said.

He added that as part of Fondy’s educational mission, the market offers Girls Chef Academy, which teaches middle-school-age girls how to cook healthfully. Kim said that the 12-part class grew out of the realization that neighborhood girls are cooking up to six or seven meals a week for their families. “And they’re cooking stuff that is not surprisingly made up of processed foods,” Kim said. Local farmers are also increasingly adding CSA distribution—community-supported agriculture—to neighborhoods around town. But while these may seem convenient to many people, they’re often out of the reach of those who are struggling to survive, according to Will Allen of Growing Power. Most CSAs ask members to purchase their share at the beginning of the season, a down payment that Allen says is too costly for low-income residents.

To address this need, Growing Power offers “market baskets” for $14 a week, which supplies a family of four with enough fresh fruits and vegetables for one week. “People pay by the week, so it’s much more practical,” Allen said. Kim said a holistic view of Milwaukee’s food system will yield more long-term successes like the Fondy market and Growing Power, and in the process empower Milwaukee’s most vulnerable residents.

“People are starting to come around to the idea of hunger and food insecurity,” Kim said. “While you could address it immediately by handing someone a can of soup, it’s a systemic problem. And people are starting to see that we can’t just keep slapping Band-Aids on issues that run much deeper.” Kipcak said a fledgling Milwaukee Food Policy Council is being formed to address food justice issues at an official level.

“If nothing else, it’s important to have somebody pay attention to food,” Kipcak said. “We do that with transportation, sanitation, education—we have all of these departments, and we would like there to be a department of food.”


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