Victory Garden Initiative: Empowering Communities to Grow Food
Gretchen Mead, founder and executive director of the Victory Garden Initiative (VGI), grew up in a rural environment in Illinois, where her family harvested the bounty of nearby forests and cultivated a family garden. Looking back, she realizes how it shaped her connection to the Earth and understanding of ecology and the natural environment.
After her father’s job was downgraded and he lost his blue-collar status, her homemaker mother returned to college, changing the family dynamic. Because her mother no longer had time to garden and cook meals, Mead’s diet suffered. “I was excited because I could start eating junk food, but I noticed the negative effects it had on my body,” she says. “I was crabby, puffy and had aches and pains.”
As an adult, Mead worked on an organic farm and began thinking more about food and its impact on overall health and wellness. She moved to Milwaukee to pursue her master’s degree in social work. Throughout her career as a clinical social worker, she witnessed the negative impact that poor nutrition and the industrialized food system had on vulnerable populations. Mead observed that the poorest are the most susceptible to diet-related illnesses, especially where cheap processed foods are plentiful but fresh vegetables are all but inaccessible. Conversely, she noticed that proper nutrition seemed to promote mood stabilization, for example, and developed a strong belief that it could be effective in helping mentally ill patients get off their medications.
Mead also noticed changes in her own body and life when, during her pregnancy, she became more focused on eating well. While on maternity leave in 2008, she began thinking about the benefits of growing food in an urban environment. She had been learning the principles of permaculture, a theory of ecological design that aims to work with nature, instead of against it, a philosophy that encapsulates all of the things about which she feels passionate. Instead of returning to her career in social work, she founded the Victory Garden Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering communities to grow food and reawaken the relationship between human and food ecology.
“Our current agriculture system happens away from where people live; our goal is to reintegrate those systems,” she explains. Essentially, VGI helps to make this happen through education, implementation and community organizing.
The Victory Garden Blitz is one of the VGI’s largest community projects. For the past five years, volunteers have come together to install hundreds of four-foot-by-eight-foot gardens filled with high-quality organic soil. During the fifth annual Victory Garden Blitz, to be held from May 11 to 25, community members can purchase gardens constructed and installed by volunteers. Last year, volunteers installed 300 new gardens. This year, VGI has set a goal of installing 500 gardens across Milwaukee.
Those new to gardening can sign up to receive help from veteran gardeners that volunteer to mentor them. Mead says that mentors provide welcome advice to help make gardening a productive and rewarding experience. As often as possible, mentors are matched with gardeners from their own neighborhood to emphasize community building and personal relationships.
As part of its mission, VGI also offers educational programs such as the Food Leader Certificate program, a one-year course that trains individuals to unite and motivate people around the issue of growing food. “The program is really for people who want to become leaders in the food movement, whether personally or professionally,” explains Mead. “It’s for those who want to get involved, deepen their knowledge, learn how to grow food and create grassroots change.”
For others that desire less commitment, VGI offers a Food Leader class, an Edible Gardening for Sustainability class series, which meets monthly from March to October, and a Permaculture Design Certification course, which is held annually in August.
VGI also maintains a community gardens program, in which people rent plots to grow food. Community gardens have been established in Concordia Park, in Harambee and at Hide House, in Bay View. Education and outreach programs are organized in fun ways around the community gardens to help get people involved and excited.
The Fruity Nutty Campaign promotes the planting of fruit and nut trees in parks and residential yards, as well as the creation of food forests throughout Milwaukee. Mead describes that the goal of planting fruit and nut trees is to protect the environment, improve public health and strengthen the community. “Fruit and nut trees provide nutritious food, serve as a source of oxygen, protect against soil erosion and keep neighborhoods cool in the summer,” she elaborates.
Mead says she is always humbled by VGI’s growth in so few years. “When we started, I was not even thinking about a nonprofit; I just wanted to help people grow their own food,” she says. “It happened so quickly and took on a life of its own. Our goal now is to continue to refine and define our mission to implement real change.”
The Victory Garden Initiative is located at 1700 E. Olive St., in Shorewood. For more information, call 414-312-8622 or visit VictoryGardenInitiative.org.