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Get the dirt
Victory Garden Initiative empowers people to grow their own food

Photos courtesy of Victory Garden Initiative

April 2014

The Blitz is on its way, and it’s going to get down and dirty. That’s just fine with volunteers and staff members at the Milwaukee-based Victory Garden Initiative, who plan to create about 500 vegetable gardens across the city May 10 to 24.

Gretchen Mead, the organization’s executive director, says the goal for this year’s Great Milwaukee Victory Garden Blitz is for the event to become as synonymous with the city as Bradford Beach and Summerfest.

Mead founded the Victory Garden Initiative in 2008 after she started growing food in her Shorewood front yard, sparking an interest in urban agriculture. "It was really a group of friends who had been doing a lot of reading and learning about the food system, climate change, social justice issues and feeling a sense of urgency about addressing these issues and making a decision to help people grow their own food in Milwaukee as a response," Mead says.

The group’s first Victory Garden Blitz in 2009 resulted in 40 new gardens; the next year it installed 100 raised-bed gardens. In 2013, volunteers created 503 gardens during the Blitz.

The Blitz is also about removing the barriers that exist for urban gardeners, Mead says. "A lot of the land in the city is not growable," she notes. "It’s really low- quality soil. When land is developed, topsoil is scraped away and taken somewhere else.

"The other reason is contamination, often with lead and mercury. Lead comes from leaded paint and gasoline and exists in the soil, especially in older houses," she says. Victory Garden raised beds are filled with organic soil so that gardeners can cultivate safe, nutritious vegetables, fruits and herbs.

Victory Garden Initiative Program Manager Jazz Glastra says about 250 volunteers worked on the project last year, "and many of those people were ‘repeat offenders,’ volunteering day after day during the Blitz."

For Glastra, the Blitz is not just about growing food, it’s about building communities. In a formal evaluation of the project, an intern from the UW-Milwaukee School of Public Health found that the vast majority of people who grow food in Blitz gardens share that food with friends and neighbors.

"When you grow something with your own two hands, going from a little seedling to something you can eat, you can’t help but share that with the people around you," Glastra says. The front yard is often the best spot for an urban garden, she adds, because "it brings the neighbors out."

Another Victory Garden Initiative project is its annual Fruity Nutty Five, which awards five neighborhoods an "edible forest" of fruit and nut trees. Glastra says the ground rules are that the community must demonstrate a minimum of 10 neighbors will either plant trees or care for the trees if planted in a vacant lot or park.

"The neighborhoods have to organize themselves," Glastra says, "and they come to us with a proposal for their own vision. They’re building community as they go."

That’s exactly what is happening in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood, says Tammy Neeb, a graduate of the Victory Garden Initiative’s yearlong Food Leader Certification Program. It’s one of many classes offered by the Victory Garden Initiative, all aimed at promoting urban agriculture.

Neeb says she signed up for the course because she and her husband, Jim Kosakowski, are second-year gardeners and were hungry to learn more about growing their own food. She also had a professional interest. Neeb is a foreclosure coordinator in the city’s Neighborhood Services Department and is interested in revitalizing vacant lots. "Each food leader is supposed to do a community project," Neeb says, "so my husband and I walked around and knocked on doors and met people we never met before."

With enough commitments to qualify for the Fruity Nutty Five competition, the neighbors created a video and won an orchard. Because Bay View’s Tippecanoe Park had recently lost many trees to an emerald ash borer infestation, the neighbors decided it was the perfect place to grow an orchard.

Last April, neighbors got together and planted three dozen fruit and nut trees in the park. Students at nearby Clement Avenue School helped water and prune the trees, and neighbors helped the students build raised garden beds. "It was just really a great success story for our community. All of these amazing things happened," Neeb says. "You instantly create a network of people who are going to naturally look out for each other. Now you’ve got teachers, parents, students and neighbors around the school interacting. On top of that, it created community and neighborhood pride."

A project in Concordia Park in Milwaukee’s Harambee Neighborhood is helping to create a community-based food system. Mead says when the Victory Garden Initiative first began cultivating the city-owned park four years ago, the soil was so compacted that rainwater ran off of it and into the sewers. Today, it has 35 community garden plots and an emerging orchard.

Victory Garden board member Erik Lindberg says he is most interested in the cultural changes that can happen through urban agriculture, "making people see their relationship to their food, the environment and each other in a new way." Mead says the broader vision for the Victory Garden Initiative is to create "a localized, sustainable — in the true sense of the word — community-based food system."

"When I think about the food system and growing my own food, I think about how I can help my family and community have access to really good, fresh food. Literally, I’m eating the earth, drinking Lake Michigan and using the sun that shines for sustenance. I’m connecting myself to this land and these people in a way that’s really profound." m

For more information on the Victory Garden Initiative, go to Visit for a list of garden clubs in your area.

This story ran in the April 2014 issue of: