Locally grown: Feeding our hunger for a and knowledge about a local food

by Belle Bergner

It’s hard to pick up a newspaper anywhere in the U.S. these days and find an article about how healthy and well fed people are. Milwaukee is no exception.

How can that be? In the third wealthiest country in the world, how is it possible that we could have undernourished children? Or the converse, why do we have an escalating obesity epidemic in the inner city when these residents have limited money for food?

Does the answer lie in eliminating poverty – or making good food available to all areas of the city? If everyone had enough money to buy fresh, local produce all of the time, would they know what to buy or where to buy it? Would it be better to teach people what they can grow to feed themselves? But would they have the time or a place to garden?

A growing coalition of community gardens, farmers markets, nonprofits, health centers, and individuals is building a support network to tackle these questions together. Collectively, the availability of high quality foods – whether store bought or grown in a backyard – is described by a new phrase: food security.

The Milwaukee Urban Agriculture Network (MUAN) is comprised of 21 organizations and individuals (and growing) who seek to raise awareness of activities and policies that will promote the benefits of local food production and improve food security.

There are many resources and skills brought to bear through MUAN, and because of that, the group is still working on identifying a collective mission statement. In the words of one of MUAN’s founding members, Julilly Kohler, “children eat what they grow, and I want to help more children do that.”

Myriad farmers markets and urban gardens have sprouted up in recent years after a decline in farmers markets in the 1970’s and 80’s. From our Riverwest Gardeners Market on Locust Street to the several gardens managed by Milwaukee Urban Gardens, to the intensive agriculture done by Growing Power on Silver Spring Drive, to Outpost, the largest natural foods coop in Milwaukee, a growing number of enterprising organizations seek to increase the availability of high quality fresh foods and urban agricultural opportunities in Milwaukee.

But is it working? Are the people who live near farmers markets getting healthier because they have more access to fresh produce? It may take a while to know.

One struggle that plagues the urban garden movement is the difficulty of holding on to property where residents choose to start gardening.

Often, urban gardens are vacant lots that residents get permission (or not) to use, but the City may decide at any time to allow development on that property. Riverwest’s own Greenfolks Garden is struggling to keep its property for this very reason. (Ed. Note: between the time this article was written and our publication date, Greenfolks Garden and Milwaukee Urban Gardens (MUG) -www., have closed on the purchase of their garden lots after a fiveyear campaign. See Greenfolks Garden Notes, page 5 of this issue.)

How did we get here?

A Food System Assessment Study started in 1997 by the Hunger Task Force looked at food availability in the most economically distressed areas of Milwaukee – census tracts with populations living at 40% of the poverty level or lower. Riverwest is adjacent to some of these areas.

Researchers also looked at the availability of grocery stores, as well as the pricing, availability, and quality of 50 food items that comprised a healthy “market basket” of grocery items.

The study found only a handful of supermarkets in central city Milwaukee. Far more prevalent are corner convenience stores, with limited selection and less-thannutritious offerings, sold at prices 29% higher than at larger suburban grocery outlets. Compounding this scarcity of healthy food options is the enduring presence of poverty and the lack of family-sustaining jobs and economic opportunities in the area.

One model – The Fondy Farmer’s Market and Food Center

The Fondy Food Center at 2200 West Fond du Lac Avenue, just north of North Avenue, was spun off from the Hunger Task Force assessment. It was designed to be a sustainable way to provide access to healthy food and jobs at a location that was once run by the city, and was a location where farmers or gardeners had sold their produce for over 80 years. Farmers market stands have long been a traditional, low-investment way to make fresh food available, and to contribute to the economic vitality of the neighborhood.

Young Kim, Executive Director of the Fondy Food Center, says “poor people can’t stretch their dollar on fresh fruits and vegetables the way people in the suburbs can. They often have $5 in their pocket and that needs to buy them food for a few days. They can’t buy a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Box because they can’t save up that much money ahead of time for food.”

“We also have to look at hunger as a total food system. How to make fresh foods available is only one piece,” says Kim.

In many cases, poor people need to be educated about nutrition and culinary skills. “Many people may not even have a single pot to cook in, which is why poor people in an urban area with limited access to fresh foods will be more likely to buy the frozen pizza that they can pop in their oven, or the box of potato flakes rather than make homemade mashed potatoes,” Kim explained.

When Kim realized that many of the people living near the Fondy Market might not know how to cook a lot of the foods the farmers were selling, he started offering recipes and cooking demonstrations. This year he’ll be offering 100 cooksets through a local food pantry, thanks to a grant from the Project for Public Spaces in New York. Providing this opportunity through the food pantry brings awareness of the farmers market as a real, affordable food source to pantry users who didn’t realize it was affordable, or if it was, to even know how to cook what was sold there.

At the farming end of the system, Fondy is training farmers to recruit larger institutional customers like restaurants in order to broaden their market base. Farmers are also being taught how to appropriately price their food to take into account all of their costs so that they are getting a fair and equitable price for their produce.

In Riverwest, look forward to another season of the Gardeners Market on Locust Street, 11am – 4pm on Sundays from June through October, beginning June 17.

If you are looking for a place to garden or want to learn how to garden, visit MUAN at

Riverwest Currents online edition – May, 2007