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New Milwaukee Institute Pulls Together Experts to Create Urban Food Systems

Susan Bence

A new Milwaukee initiative will be featured at the 8th annual Wisconsin Local Food Summit kicking off Friday. The Institute for Urban Agriculture and Nutrition grew out of a conversation between Will Allen, internationally lauded founder of Growing Power, and UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mike Lovell.

Their inspiration was to pull together expertise among scientists, educators and community groups to jointly come up with solutions for the problems of broken urban food systems and the public health issues they create.

The collaboration folds in universities, civic and community organizations as well as the City of Milwaukee.

The institute is in its early development stage, but is gathering steam. Acting managing director Bonnie Halvorsen says its approach is to work from the bottom up.

The Milwaukee Food Council represents a lot of people and has formed a community collaborative council," Halvorsen says. "That group will be tasked with creating the research agenda that our academics will respond to. So we’re not starting with the academics and finding out what they want to research; we’re going to the community first and finding out what their problems are and then we are going to apply the science to that.”

The community council will convene for the first time on February 6. Jesse Blom is one of its members. He juggles his time between Sweet Water Foundation and the Victory Garden Initiative. Blom believes one of the areas of research the community is hungry for is soil.

“In the urban environment we have many contaminants that can be present in our soil; we don’t have the resources necessary to make sure we are growing out of healthy soil," Blom says. "And that’s where partnerships with research institutions can ensure that we have the resources necessary as citizens to be growing healthy food."

Michael Carriere comes to the table as a historian. He teaches at the Milwaukee School of Engineering and envisions the Institute as a tool to draw other academics and experts into projects.

“I have engineering students who can work on the infrastructure things of raised beds and aquaponic systems," Carriere says. "We can work with natural scientists from places like Marquette on how these systems actually work. So for me it’s having access to those resources.”

He means human as well as financial resources. “A lot of the projects that I have worked on have incredibly small budgets. The idea of being able to partner with other organizations, with other academics on going after grants makes this something that could lead to larger and larger projects; which to me is appealing,” Carriere says.

Gretchen Mead, executive director of Victory Garden Initiative, believes the collaborative model at work in the Milwaukee could lay the foundation for local sustainable food systems for the region and perhaps all of Wisconsin.

Mead says a recent United Nations report underscores Milwaukee is moving in the right direction. "It is called Wake Up Before It’s Too Late and it really outlines the situation that we’re in in relationship to global sustainability and outlines the solution to that which is essentially local community-based sustainable agriculture,” Mead says.

Mead says individuals and groups have been working away toward that goal for years; she hopes the Institute for Urban Agriculture and Nutrition will bring the community toward collaborative food system solutions.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.