Leaders of Milwaukee’s Sustainable Food Movement
Jun 30, 2015 02:58PM
By Sheila Julson
By the latter half of the 20th century, big-box chain stores and subdivisions had devoured much of the earth that was once fertile farmland, thus pushing our nation’s food supply into the hands of large commercial factory farms and food conglomerates, and further away from individuals. Yet actions by food advocates over the last couple of decades have shown that the pendulum is swinging back toward local and sustainable food systems that return control to the people.
Today’s metropolitan Milwaukee area has an abundance of small-scale and urban farms, nonprofits and community partnerships striving to make fresh and organically grown food accessible and affordable for everyone. Here are some of the many standouts.
5500 W. Silver Spring Dr., Milwaukee
Seen by many Milwaukeeans as the father of urban agriculture, Will Allen, a former professional basketball athlete and executive for KFC and Procter & Gamble, used his own retirement fund to purchase a two-acre plot of land in a Northwest Milwaukee neighborhood that was, at that time, a food desert. In 1993, Growing Power was born.
Allen’s efforts have turned Growing Power into a bountiful urban farm and local food system that provides not only fresh produce, but also work and educational opportunities for area youth. Growing Power’s closed loop aquaculture systems produce fresh food indoors year-round, and the model has been duplicated by many organizations throughout the country. Growing Power composts more than 40 million pounds of food waste annually and has been using vermiculture—a method of composting food waste into fertilizer using worms—since before most people had ever heard of the term.
Allen continues to share his urban agriculture expertise beyond Growing Power’s greenhouses, speaking at sustainability conferences and educational farming seminars throughout the world. He is the author of The Good Food Revolution.
Victory Garden Initiative
1845 N. Farwell Ave., Ste. 100
During her career as a social worker, Gretchen Mead saw firsthand the negative impact that poor nutrition resulting from an industrialized food system has on underprivileged populations. In 2009, she founded Victory Garden Initiative (VGI) with a goal of empowering communities to take back their food supply and create sustainable and socially just food systems.
VGI offers educational programs and Food Leader Certification classes, and the organization has been instrumental in building gardens throughout Milwaukee at homes, schools, places of worship and anywhere people wish to grow their own food. As of last May, VGI has installed 2,478 gardens across Milwaukee County.
VGI’s signature project, The Great Milwaukee Victory Garden BLITZ, is an annual event held in late May, in which teams of volunteers construct approximately 500 raised bed gardens throughout the city. The group also holds the annual Fruity Nutty Five Contest that awards five neighborhoods with up to 30 fruit and nut trees.
4382 Hickory Rd., West Bend
Wellspring, an organic farm and educational center, has been teaching people to grow, prepare and eat healthy food since 1982. Wellspring was founded by education professional Mary Ann Ihm, who sought to create a holistic learning environment. Wellspring’s programs were originally held in Milwaukee, and the organization purchased its current location in 1988. Its community supported agriculture (CSA) program is the longest-running in Wisconsin. Wellspring also has stands at farmers’ markets and sells its produce to restaurants.
Wellspring’s education programs include cooking workshops and classes, youth and teen programs and summer camps for children in kindergarten through 10th grade. Participants learn about growing food and how the ecosystem works through hands-on farm work. Guests can explore 36 acres of natural beauty or stay overnight at the bed-and-breakfast and international hostel.
2136 N. 21st St., Milwaukee
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a wide swath of one of Milwaukee’s strongest and most vibrant African-American communities was dismantled to make room for a freeway project that was never built. In 1972, Milwaukee County later approved a community garden to be placed on Garfield Avenue between 20th and 21st streets. In 2001, upon her sudden death, the garden was named Alice’s Garden to honor the work of Alice Meade-Taylor, the director of Milwaukee County Extension at that time, who had a vision of building community and nurturing families through gardening.
Under the leadership of Venice Williams, the first executive director, as well as a capitol campaign and renovations spearheaded by the Center for Resilient Cities, the garden was transformed into what it is today. In addition to promoting the cultivation of land and growing good food, Alice’s Garden’s goals are manifold: to provide community stewardship; to bring elders together with youth to experience intergenerational education; to provide a safe social gathering place; and to honor the generations-old art of preparing and preserving food.
Alice’s Garden rents garden plots and operates programs that include Healthy Moms, Healthy Kids; and Fieldhands and Foodways, and has a beautiful herbal labyrinth, offering a Lunch and Labyrinth Series at noon each Thursday.
Teens Grow Greens
We Grow Greens formed in 2013 as a cooperative of educators and sustainability leaders committed to healthy food systems and nature-based learning. In 2014, Charles Uihlein formed Teens Grow Greens, a skill-building paid internship that provides hands-on education about nutritious food production for teens ages 14 through 17.
Students chosen for the program gathered at Weber’s Greenhouse during the cold days of late winter and early spring to start their seedlings. During summer, the youths hone business and marketing skills selling their tomatoes, peppers, kale and cucumbers at area farmers’ markets. The kids learn to grow using organic methods and build awareness of sustainable food systems, business skills and teamwork.
Sheila Julson is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine.