The Fondy Market at 22nd and Fond du Lac is one of the Near North Side’s success stories. There had been a farmer’s market in the area for decades, but about 10 years ago the market really took off in its present form, thanks in great part to Young Kim.
Kim has been the Executive Director of the Fondy Food Center, which runs the Farmer’s Market, since 2003. In that time, Kim says the numbers of people served and the food programs the Center supports has grown every year. Food stamp sales at the market topped 41,000 - putting the market at number five in the country.
"There is just such an engagement around food in the community," Kim says. "The skill with cooking - there's a commonly held believe out there that people in central city Milwaukee don't know how to cook...It's a very opinionated food culture. People take a lot of pride in their recipes."
Kim says when the market first started out, it had a social service-oriented approach: the website was all about hunger and food insecurity.
"'People don't have vegetables, blah blah blah,'" Kim says. "That's not really an enticing way to get people to your farmer's market. So about five to six years ago we said, 'You know, let's just ditch this food insecurity language and just try to build the best darn farmer's market in Milwaukee.'"
And Kim says they're on the way to doing so. The food center regularly has programming around food, cooking contests, and cultural and artistic events. But most of all, he says, it's a gathering place for the community.
"A farmer's market is more than a place to get food," he says. "It’s a place to reconnect with a high school classmate you haven’t seen in a year, it’s a place to learn to shop for collard greens with your grandmother; it’s a place to be seen."
Soul food continues to be a part of the community diet, even as health issues like obesity and heart disease affect more people. But Kim says trying to change the essence - or ingredients - of soul food is a loaded issue.
"It's got so much heritage and meaning, but in my opinion in needs some updating," he says, "and that conversation is happening right now in the community, 'How do we hang on to our cultural past, while adapting our recipes to a more sedentary lifestyle?'"
But Kim isn't interested in forcing change - he merely wants Fondy's to be a facilitator. Plus he says making changes in food culture - like banning items - isn't as easy as mandating seatbelts or bike helmets.
"The key to nutrition and education in the future, at least for our agency, will be a neighbor-to-neighbor sharing of recipes and cooking techniques, and to really bring the neighborhood knowledge to the forefront, as opposed to bringing some expert in to teach recipes."
That also means building connections with the local farmers who supply Fondy's, many of whom are Hmong.
"We have a robust cooking tradition, we have a robust farming community. The trick is just to connect the two and make it work."