Urban farms become vital food option in Milwaukee during pandemic


When COVID-19 began to develop last year, the Victory Garden Initiative, an urban farm in the Harambee neighborhood, pivoted.

The 1 1/2 acre farm nestled between Concordia Avenue and Townsend Street has evolved from a member-only property to access for anyone wanting fresh vegetables grown on site.

It has been operating as a community-supported agricultural farm since 2017 when the initiative acquired the land. People pay an annual fee to receive a share or box of the farm’s harvest.

“We pivoted on that with COVID and decided to give it to our neighbors,” said Michelle Dobbs, who became the organization’s executive director for 12 years in 2020. “Part of it is keeping food. in the neighborhood. It didn’t feel right to export the best of the neighborhood when the people around us were hungry.

During the pandemic, Dobbs said the shelves of the few stores serving Harambee were empty. And compounding the community’s access to food is a lack of healthy and affordable food options, a plight shared by many black neighborhoods. Convenience stores that sell more alcohol and canned foods, instead of fresh produce, are proliferating in black and Latin neighborhoods.

Urban gardens or farms like the Victory Garden Initiative have increasingly stepped up to fill the food access void, providing fresh fruits and vegetables as the pandemic continues. They have become essential in the fight against food insecurity.

The nonprofit Feeding America describes food insecurity as a lack of constant access to enough food for every member of a household to lead active, healthy lives. In 2020, the predicted food insecurity rate for Milwaukee County is 14.9%, according to the association’s Map the Meal Gap. For children, the rate is 26.6% against 19.9% ​​nationally.

“Good food is a privilege,” said Dobbs.

This privilege is based on the fact that people can afford it and have quality groceries in their community, she said. This is often not the case for low-income communities of color, Dobbs added.

In some cases, having a reliable car to get to a quality grocery store is also a challenge.

And in areas like Harambee, which Dobbs described as a “food swamp,” lack of food is not the problem. The problem is, the foods available here are more processed and less nutritious.

“The food system is broken and we are excluded from it,” she said. “But there are people who lobby, legislate and fight to close this gap. But in the meantime, the locals still deserve nutritious food.

The answer for Dobbs is self-sufficiency by teaching individuals to grow food in their own backyards until deficiencies in the food system are corrected. On a small patch of land, she says, people can feed their whole families for the summer or for the year.

It does not advocate secession of the food system, but uses urban agriculture or “agrihood” to serve as a safeguard.

His organization has created several services to ensure that neighboring residents have access to nutritious food.

Last year, he established a farm stand, a 10-foot table filled with crops harvested from the farm where residents can choose what they want at no cost. Last weekend, the farm stall handed out 200 pounds of food, which Dobbs said was gone within hours.

The farm’s crops are grown based on surveys from residents and are culturally specific such as cabbage, turnips, mustards, carrots, beans and corn. Residents can pick their own vegetables. They are also taught how to can and store apples, pears, peaches, plums and raspberries which are grown in the farm’s “food forest”.

Since many residents in the neighborhood, especially the elderly on fixed incomes, do not eat regular meals, the organization has started serving hot, garden-inspired meals from its “take out window”.

Free meals are served on Wednesdays and are prepared by a retired volunteer chef. Meals are Southern comfort food like chicken and waffles or oxtails and gravy. They also provide snacks for children who drop out of school.

“If we provide hot, nutritious food, people are going to taste it,” she said. “This could be a lever that we could pull to move this needle in terms of health disparities in our neighborhood.”

“People in my neighborhood are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 infection due to co-morbidities. We have high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, ”Dobbs added.

Reducing these health disparities begins with access to nutritious and affordable food, which urban farms and gardens can provide, she said.

A similar effort is repeated nearly a mile and a half into an urban garden operated by All People’s Church. They also operate a free farm stand three times a week stocked with items harvested from his garden as well as produce and dry goods donated at local grocery stores.

“Before Pete’s (Produce) came along, we were absolutely a food desert, which means it’s over two miles from any grocery store where you can buy fresh produce,” said Susan Holty. , church garden educator. “The exception is these mom and pop [stores] but they tend to have very old products, so the vitamins are hardly there any more.

Located at Second and Clarke Streets, the garden occupies two lots in town and grows a variety of greens, beans, melons, squash, snow peas and various classifications of cherry tomatoes.

The goal of the garden is not only to provide fresh vegetables, but also to introduce residents to new foods, such as kiwi, eggplant or squash and the different ways to use them. It builds on the generational knowledge of older residents on how to cook or use certain foods.

“When you start doing this, a lot of them start telling you how they were raised on rhubarb, eggplant or kiwi,” Holty said, noting that a lot of people remember growing up. with these foods. “So it’s almost more reminding people that they have that in their history. I never want to be the white troubadour woman who comes to correct your eating habits.

Holty said she just wanted people to feel comfortable with trying different foods. Since it’s free, she said, it’s a better bet than paying a lot of money for something someone may not like. The hope is to break the cycle of microwave-popping something or pouring something out of the can, especially for the younger generation, who fill up on junk food and spicy vessels, Holty said.

“It makes people feel full but doesn’t provide any nutrition,” she added.

The mission of the garden has evolved since its creation 25 years ago with 10 to 12 beds or raised boxes. It now has 40 raised beds, nine boxes accessible to disabled people, 2 hoop houses and a grow room. He first began serving church members and introducing young people to gardening so that they could learn professional skills. But in 2014, the church opened the garden to the neighborhood because they were growing more food than the congregation needed.

“We saw a need,” said Holty.

This need has increased since the pandemic. Holty reached out to local grocers to provide additional produce to meet demand. One of their sister Lutheran churches coordinated with the collectors and small farmers of Oconomowoc to bring in crops to supplement their food donations.

This year, the garden served approximately 2,500 people and provided crates of produce to two elementary schools. The farm stand serves on average around 120 families per week.

“When you garden with your family and see something go from seed to fruit, it’s really exciting for kids and people of all ages,” said Holty. “They like to try food from their own backyard a lot more than anything they’ve picked far too early to hit store shelves.”

Stock the Shelves donation campaign

Stock the Shelves is an annual campaign of USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin in partnership with Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin that encourages readers to donate to help fight hunger in their local communities.

Since 2010, Stock the Shelves has raised over $ 5 million for Wisconsin pantries through donations from readers and support from community partners.

To donate online, visit feedamericawi.org/stocktheshelvesdonate.

For a list of pantries supported by Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin, visit feedamericawi.org/find-help/pantry-locator/.

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