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Resilient Milwaukee
Local groups striving to eliminate city 'food deserts'

Photos by Center for Resilient Cities

April 2015

It’s no secret that fresh fruits and vegetables are the staple of any healthy diet. But in urban areas like Milwaukee, fresh quality produce can be hard to come by. Supermarket chains tend to avoid central city neighborhoods where crime is high and incomes are low, resulting in "food deserts."

In recent years though, several community organizations and initiatives in the Milwaukee area have begun working to improve the local food production and distribution system. Their goal is to make healthy food more affordable and accessible through community gardens, urban farms, local food stands and green space.

"Building a vibrant local food system is vital to sustaining the local community," says Matt Howard, environmental sustainability director for the City of Milwaukee.

Here is a list of five community efforts leading the way in stimulating the local economy and increasing access to healthy food.

Center for Resilient Cities

Since its inception 19 years ago, the Center for Resilient Cities has been involved with many community-based food system projects, from fund raising support to technical assistance to lending guidance on sustainable food policies. The nonprofit organization, which practices sustainable community development, has offices in Milwaukee and Madison.

"A sustainable, healthy food system is a critical component of a resilient city," says Executive Director Marcia Caton Campbell. "Environmental, economic and social conditions directly impact the food supply."

Currently, the CRC is involved in the implementation of ReFresh Milwaukee, the city’s 10-year sustainability plan. "We are conducting research on the city’s regulatory environment and Milwaukeeans’ ability to access fresh, nutritious, affordable food," explains Campbell.

Alice’s Garden

Alice’s Garden, a 2-acre urban farm located on Garfield Avenue between 20th and 21st Streets in Milwaukee’s Lindsay Heights neighborhood, can trace its roots back to the late 1970s, when Milwaukee County gave residents the go-ahead to start a community garden following the failed expansion of the Park East Freeway. Today, the garden serves more than 100 local families of nearly every ethnic, economic and age group.

"Community gardens are a means to helping city folk reconnect with the natural environment and one another, and they serve as a springboard for neighborhood development," says garden director Venice Williams.

Since joining Alice’s Garden in 2006, Williams has introduced a variety of classes and programs like the Garden Mosaics Earn and Learn, a youth program designed to break down cultural barriers and teach work-readiness skills. The garden also offers family programming with topics like creating a family food budget and preparing healthier meals.

In 2009, Alice’s Garden underwent an extensive renovation project, including soil remediation, drainage enhancements and the construction of a covered gathering space.

"Alice’s Garden is about more than just gardening," says Williams. "It’s about instilling hope in the neighborhood."

Milwaukee Food Council

One of the key players in helping develop a healthy, affordable, equitable food system, the Milwaukee Food Council began nearly eight years ago as an ad hoc group of community members, professionals and government officials. According to founder Martha Davis-Kipcak, the council is committed to building a healthy food system that is ecologically sustainable, economically vibrant and socially just.

"A strong community-based food system connects people to the source of their food and creates a thriving food economy," says Davis-Kipcak.

Since 2007, the council has had a hand in actively shaping local food policies and programming in Milwaukee. The MFC is responsible for the 2010 honey ordinance allowing residents to keep bees and the 2011 eggs ordinance giving people the ability to raise chickens for eggs on residential property. The council also worked with the Environmental Protection Agency to identify potential legal barriers to urban agriculture.

HOME GR/OWN Milwaukee

The local food movement isn’t only about making healthy food more accessible in underserved neighborhoods. By introducing urban agriculture programs in some of Milwaukee’s poorest areas, the city is seeking to address other problems like unemployment and urban decay.

Enter HOME GR/OWN Milwaukee, a city-led effort launched in 2012, tasked with turning Milwaukee’s vacant lots into a source of food and jobs.

"We want to transform these vacant lots into community assets," says HOME GR/OWN program manager Tim McCollow. "Our goal is to empower residents and spark new economic opportunities around local, healthy food production and distribution."

Working with area food and farming-related programs, HOME GR/OWN is already making progress. Last year, five urban orchards were planted around the city’s north side, including a long-vacant lot on Locust Street between 1st and 2nd Streets.

Walnut Way Conservation Group

Walnut Way Conservation Group began in 2000 as a grass-roots effort to drive out crime and reclaim the Walnut Way neighborhood, an area bounded by North Avenue, Fond du Lace Avenue, 12th Street and Walnut Street.

Fifteen years later, residents have successfully transformed vacant lots into productive gardens, installed 40 rain gardens and planted a fruit orchard. In January, the group broke ground on the Innovations & Wellness Commons, a two-phase project that will serve as a hub for economic development, healthy food options and wellness services.

"We envision phase one as a healthy food oasis," says executive director Sharon Adams. "The environmental impact of the project will be a catalyst in restoring vitality to the North Avenue corridor."

This story ran in the April 2015 issue of: