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Natural Awakenings Milwaukee Magazine

Fighting Food Insecurity in Milwaukee

Aug 31, 2021 08:30AM ● By Maija Sikora
“Rent eats first,” writes Harvard sociologist and author Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Although he profiled Milwaukee as an example of an inequitable city whose residents face housing insecurity, he notes that Milwaukee is not a statistical anomaly in terms of food insecurity. Food security is dependent on much more than the ability to purchase food. Accessing and storing food are also important factors—ones that are heavily dependent upon reliable housing.

For more than a quarter of poor families in Milwaukee, 70 percent of income is devoted to rent. “As a result, housing insecurity compounds the problems of poverty by also increasing food insecurity for evicted families,” affirms Desmond. For those that fall into this bracket, holistic health can, at most, be 30 percent of one’s priority.

Thankfully, several Milwaukee area organizations realize the correlation between housing and food insecurity, including the problem of “food deserts”—residential locations without easy access to grocery stores. In a 2019 analysis done by the City of Milwaukee (, big-name supermarkets revealed that they often deliberately avoid urban locations due to the sprawling nature of their stores. According to 2015 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 9 percent of Milwaukee’s population—53,995 people—live in a food desert. Through practical and creative approaches, local organizations are stepping up to offer solutions.

Local Leaders Address Food Insecurity

To combat the issue, ideas such as bus stop farmers’ markets, community gardens, evolved public transportation options and government-run grocery stores have been proposed. However, Milwaukee Street Angels’ Vice President, Vicky Cordani, says that although these are valid solutions, they are slow-changing and tend to ignore other factors such as the available free time of working community members, access to childcare and capacity for mobility.

Milwaukee Street Angels is an organization that provides food security to the community by bringing food directly to its most vulnerable members. A sort of Meals-on-Wheels, Street Angels utilizes vans to mobilize food to areas where it is needed. The organization operates through an onsite location off of Layton Boulevard, but their influence extends throughout Milwaukee County. According to Cordani, the Angels make 36 stops a night and visit over 140 people. “We do outreach to people that are so sick that they cannot move,” she says.

Cordani notes that most people don’t always have a grasp on what resources are available, making healthy choices more difficult. In an effort to meet people where they are, Street Angels strives to provide preemptive outreach by providing for those that don’t know how or where to ask.

For those that experience food insecurity, says Cordani, healthy choices are not always within their realm of control. She says that it’s for this reason that Street Angels consciously tries to provide wholesome options for their client base. “Dignity plays a huge role in healthy choices,” she says. “The ability to provide healthy food to everyone in the community is difficult, but I always say that if you are not willing to eat a meal that you are serving, then you shouldn’t be serving it.”

Other resources exist as well, such as the Hunger Task Force’s Mobile Market, a repurposed milk truck which provides healthy fresh food at a 25 percent discount, and which makes multiple stops per week at various locations around Milwaukee County. It is a growing source of food opportunity for those Milwaukeeans that can reach it and have the space to store fresh food.

Cordani explains that there is a fundamental misunderstanding when it comes to food and poverty. Unhealthy food choices are far more abundant than healthy ones because unhealthy choices are inexpensive and have a long, low-maintenance shelf-life. “When you can provide for your kids with a can of soup for less money and effort than you can using fresh ingredients, it’s an easy decision. From there it’s a vicious cycle.”

According to a joint study by the University of California and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, those that have access to healthier food choices have a healthier life prognosis. “These disparities in food access contribute to subsequent chronic health conditions, including obesity, cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as to higher mortality rates and years of potential life lost.”

Milwaukee’s latest Fresh Food Access Report identified 13 food deserts in Brew City. Statistically, there is a direct correlation between areas of impoverishment and high ratios of fast-food restaurants to grocery stores. According to the report, in Milwaukee, 37.2 percent of the population suffers from diet-related health problems.

Cordani sees the biggest obstacles to food security in Milwaukee as access and location. But she notes that resources come in more shapes and sizes than the average brick-and-mortar grocery store. “Grocery shopping is a skill,” she says. Sometimes it is not only a matter of providing resources but teaching such skills so that young people grow up with the knowledge and confidence to make healthy decisions.

This is where The Next Door Foundation makes an entrance. A central Milwaukee school, Next Door focuses on preparing children for their upcoming adolescence and academics through hands-on, skill-building practices. Cordani, also a volunteer with Next Door, says they have recently begun incorporating gardening into the academic curriculum. “It allows children to build those basic health skills,” says Cordani, “so that they know how to cultivate healthy experiences.”

She says that regardless of the solution proposed or the organization dedicating energy to the situation, the goal is always the same: to help everyone to eat for a lifetime.

Maija Sikora is a communications major and managing editor of The Racquet Press at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse.