Milwaukee Neighbors Step Up To Fill Growing Food Gap

Sep 10, 2020

Many people lack access to food to sustain their families. The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the struggle. According to a recent Feeding America study, food insecurity could impact up to 1 in 3 adults and 1 in 2 children in the U.S.

Milwaukee-area organizations and individuals are stepping up to help fill the food gap.

READ: Milwaukee Urban Farm Plows Ahead Despite Coronavirus Pandemic

Victory Garden Initiative - Harambee

One program can be found at Concordia Avenue and Richards Street in the Harambee neighborhood. It's called the Victory Garden Initiative (VGI).

Vanette Laird says she's been a regular customer at the Friday farmstand.
Credit Susan Bence

That’s where I met Vanette Laird, smartly dressed in shades of yellow with a matching flower in her hair. She appears ready to go to lunch with friends, but Laird's mission is to pick up fresh vegetables at VGI's Friday roadside farmstand.

In her household, Laird preps the veggies and her husband does the cooking. “I’ll get up in the morning and clean them and off he goes,” Laird says.

Laird and others have plenty to choose from – tables burst with piles of freshly harvested jalapenos, collards and mounds of herbs.

Joya Wade is community outreach coordinator and kitchen manager for Victory Garden Initiative.

“We bring out as much as we can carry usually. And if we give it all out, we’ll walk people to the farm because we also do a you-pick program, and then people can see exactly where their food is growing,” Wade says.

The pandemic has changed the way Victory Garden Initiative operates. While the Friday farmstand isn’t new, it’s different. “We did a pay-what-you-can model, but now everything is completely free,” Wade explains.

VGI farm manager Aaron Wynn is pleased to see more neighbors spent time at the garden. "They pick vegetables, cook them for supper and then come back for more the next day. That's the way it should be," Wynn says. Part of VGI's mission is to work with neighbors to install their own backyard vegetable gardens.
Credit Susan Bence

Aaron Wynn likes the evolution. He manages the organization’s 1.5-acre farm just across the street. While Wynn might have had more interns assisting him in the past and more outside visitors, more neighbors are now showing up.

“And we’d like to get it into everyone’s backyard as well. But this is here, come see it, treat it like it’s yours and I think spread that sort of idea,” Wynn says.

This season, Victory Garden Initiative has shared mountains of rich compost it cultivates at the back of the farm with families in the neighborhood.

Bremen Community Garden - Riverwest

Less than 2 miles south of VGI in Riverwest, Katie Luke has found herself coordinating vegetable production and distribution on a postage-stamp-sized parcel. It’s the Bremen Community Garden at the corner of Clarke and Bremen streets.

“Just on Wednesdays and Saturdays, you can see we have the free table out there. We try to hang out and ask people if they want kale or greens,” Luke says.

Katie Luke (center) with one of her daughters along with garden volunteers Wesley (left) and Robin (right).
Credit Susan Bence

Luke and her husband are raising three young daughters. Since the pandemic hit, Luke says managing the Bremen Community Garden has meant a lot to her family.

Luke says keeping up with what's growing where has been a challenge in the community garden's first season.
Credit Susan Bence

“It’s a very like relaxing atmosphere. You can still kind of like see people walking by, but be socially distant. It’s been very helpful for us mentally,” Luke says. And she encourages other families to just hang out and look at plants.

The raised beds are yielding up to 40 pounds of tomatoes, squash and whatever else Luke finds popping out of the earth.

“It’s almost like garden fairies that just come do a lot of stuff and I might not ever meet them,” Luke says. “Then we had people planted one thing in one bed and then someone didn’t label it, so someone planted another thing, and then we have carrot parsley lettuce [beds.]”

Luke’s not complaining. She says the free food garden will continue next season, just with a bit more planning.

“I’ve been taking a lot of pictures and trying to document, so over the winter I’m hoping to put together a series of here’s what we learned this year,” Luke says.

Food is Free MKE - Sherman Park

Emma Toth delivered flats of starter plants to jumpstart the Riverwest garden. She cultivated them in a small donated greenhouse plunked in her backyard in the Sherman Park neighborhood, where she also grows mountains of vegetables. She produces way more than she, her daughter and partner can consume.

“Such a strong abundance that I just started putting it out here on this little bench,” Toth says, showing me the spot next to her garage in the alley.

“Five tomatoes and a cucumber at first, and then starting put more stuff out. One day I came home and there were vegetables I didn’t grow on the table,” Toth says. “That’s when I realized that I was being welcomed into the community.”

Emma Toth at the alley market that has been evolving since the summer of 2019 behind her house in the Sherman Park neighborhood.
Credit Susan Bence

Toth has no idea how many people float in and out of the free alley “market.” People add their own fresh produce, canned goods, even school supplies.

“I would say I see at least two or three people an hour, whether they’re donating or picking up or doing both at the same time,” Toth says.

People pop in day and night.

Toth's daughter, Nora Toth-Pearson is growing herbs, peas and salad greens in a small plot next to the alley market to show visitors how much you can do with so little.
Credit Susan Bence

“We have a full-size fridge and freezer coming. Somebody offered it up to us, so we’re going ahead to just throw a carport up and over this entire space to take care of protecting the food, protecting the refrigerator, being a little more inviting,” Toth says.

She says thanks to neighbors, this is just the beginning.

“The guy on the corner wants us to grow berries and fruit in his yard for the pantry. The gentlemen who lives right here, he lives in a wheelchair, so we’re going to make this space wheelchair accessible,” Toth says. “And he said we can install some handicap accessible raised beds on this plot, so we’re going to do gardening in our neighbors’ yards!”

Toth is confident this model, what she calls Food is Free MKE, can be replicated. She says every neighborhood could take care of itself "hyper-locally."

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