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Milwaukee Urban Farm Plows Ahead Despite Coronavirus Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic caused millions of people to lose their jobs and many are facing economic hardship. For some families, it’s been challenging to access fresh food.

One of the organizations trying to help is Groundwork Milwaukee, which grows and shares tens of thousands of pounds of produce. The bulk of that growing happens in 11 hoop houses adjacent to Maglio Companies, off Port Washington Road in Glendale. The structures were initially the brainchild of Growing Power's Will Allen.

Damien DeBuhr, deputy director of programs and operations with Groundwork, says Groundwork took over the hoop houses a few years ago.

“Groundwork has been partnering with Riverwest Food Pantry for the last three years here. Through the work that we're able to do out here, we're about to provide, last year it was 13,000 pounds of food to shoppers at the Riverwest Food Pantry,” says DeBuhr.

Credit Susan Bence
Damien DeBuhr says cultivating a sense of belonging is as important as growing food to the mission of Groundwork Milwaukee.

DeBuhr says his organization aspires to help make fresh food available throughout the Milwaukee area. This season it began partnering with other organizations, including New Beginnings Are Possible and Tikkun Ha-Ir.

But the pandemic has altered Groundwork's day-to-day operations.

“Typically, like last year, we brought in a lot of groups from employers and other community groups to get those thousands of pounds of food out. We still had that same plan coming into this year, but with COVID we had to adjust to really focus on individuals,” DeBuhr says.

On a recent Saturday morning, a dozen volunteers were busy in one of the hoop houses along with  Groundwork's volunteer and food systems specialist Samson Srok.

“We’re pulling all the weeds. We’re preparing this bed for winterizing. We need to pull all the vegetation growing in it. And we’re going to lay heaping topsoil with compost and then eventually plant some cover crops to provide nutrients,” Srok says.

Credit Susan Bence
Volunteers help weed, harvest and in this case put a hoop house bed "to sleep" until it's time to plant again.

No more than 15 volunteers work here at a time, and Srok says coronavirus protocol begins with virtual training.

“We’re always wearing masks anytime we’re less than 6 feet away from one another, and anytime we’re in the hoop houses, which are these huge raised beds with plastic covering over the top – great for the plants, but not great for air circulation,” Srok says. “Then we’re always careful to bleach tools before we put them back in the bucket or pass them to one another.”

In addition to coordinating the “farm,” Srok assists nearly 100 small neighborhood gardens throughout the Milwaukee area.

Credit Susan Bence
Samson Srok approaches his job with seemingless boundless energy and limitless enthusiasm.

"I’m sort of on back up for any support they might need. Like on Saturdays, after the workday, I might get a text asking for support,” Srok says.

The pandemic didn’t stop Groundwork from launching a new program this summer. Called Fresh Food Connect, its goal is to make sure no vegetables go to waste.

“It’s a mobile app that any gardener can download and offer their produce for donations. So they just list what they have available and then one of our couriers comes by and picks it up,” Srok says.

Couriers are volunteers “with a bike or a car and [who] want to grab some veggies,” Srok explains.

READ: Milwaukee Group Launches Fruit Tree Harvest Initiative

Groundwork Deputy Director Damien DeBuhr says despite the challenges, the pandemic has come with a silver lining.

“While we had to limit the number of people, we saw a real thirst for people being able to engage outdoors. We really did see that the gardens we help coordinate can be these places where people come together in positive ways, have their emotion needs met, along with having fresh food available for them to eat,” DeBuhr says.

Credit Susan Bence
Tomatoes are one of the staple crops on the urban farm.

He says the pandemic has reinforced his belief that urban farming can create even more than a sustainable local food system. DeBuhr believes it can build a sense of belonging.

“At Groundwork, we really feel that food can help promote a sense of belonging, which we so desperately need in the city of Milwaukee and we’re proud to be a part of that,” DeBuhr says  

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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.