Building a More Resilient Milwaukee
One Family and One Neighborhood at a Time
Although historically food has not been considered the noblest of literary subjects, writers from ancient Rome consistently chose to depict their society at the dinner table. Curious about why, and willing to research Latin literature and Roman customs, Emily Gowers, author of The Loaded Table: Representations of Food in Roman Literature, discovered that a distinctive cuisine and shared food vocabulary functioned as central elements in the definition of Roman culture. Today, visionary organizations focused on the health of local communities are working hard to ensure that future historians will not define the city of Milwaukee’s culture by fast food and junk food that for decades have been more accessible than fresh produce and whole foods. Since 2007, organizations such as the Center for Resilient Cities (CRC), Milwaukee Food Council (MFC), SeedFolks Youth Ministry, Alice’s Garden and Walnut Way Conservation Corp. have been among the dozens working with Milwaukee residents to create a healthy food system that is economically vibrant, socially just and environmentally sustainable.
“Local food system advocates and activists help build awareness and bring visibility to our complex food issues by examining government policies and providing education. This groundswell of activity demonstrates how much more intentional we are about our food landscape and how we feed our community,” says Martha Davis Kipcak, CRC community food system organizer and MFC convenor.
Davis Kipcak is one of 10 dedicated staff members at Resilient Cities, a nonprofit organization that practices sustainable community development. She and her colleagues get daily opportunities to use their knowledge and experience to address ways to resolve complicated food issues. Like her co-workers, Davis Kipcak prefers a whole-systems approach to food and its numerous dimensions: cultural, nutritional, political, agricultural, social, environmental, medical, philosophical and spiritual. “It’s one of our goals to make the public aware of these aspects, as well as the fact that food significantly affects myriad issues related to the economy and to practically everything it takes to keep a city resilient—transportation, housing, urban planning, land use, health, waste, water, education and so much more,” she says.
The Milwaukee Food Council
Embracing that goal, the Milwaukee Food Council galvanizes public and private sectors to build awareness of the interconnectedness of food system issues. The initiative, which was established in 2007, brings together community members, professionals and government entities in order to address existing policies and operations needed to improve access to healthy food; develop urban agriculture initiatives; address brownfield remediation, water management strategies and green economic opportunities; and nurture a healthy, multi-generational approach to create a strong, resilient food community. The council has played a significant role in getting ordinances written and passed to allow beekeeping for harvesting honey as well as raising chickens for their eggs, within city limits.
Davis Kipcak and her colleagues note that the U.S. does not have a local, state or federal Department of Food to oversee this complicated system. “A healthy food supply is extremely relevant to the success of our nation,” she notes, quoting the pragmatic wisdom of the French philosopher of gastronomy, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. “He said, ‘The destiny of nations depends upon the manner in which they feed themselves.’ What he was telling us is that everyone has to eat well for our society to thrive,” advises Davis Kipcak.
In a city, eating well requires innovative strategies for small-scale, intensive food production and a renewed dedication to small retail outlets, because large grocery stores and supermarkets have pulled away from many impoverished areas. Even in rural areas, where surrounding field crops are grown for ethanol, food processing and export, sustainable fruit and vegetables growers are needed to provide reliable access to healthy, fresh food. “Wherever there are people, food should be produced in close proximity. Ancient societies knew this, which is why they settled near their food source, whether it was a body of water or a field where they could grow crops,” explains Davis Kipcak.
Two beacons of light in Milwaukee’s urban agriculture scene are Alice’s Garden and Walnut Way, community food production sites that provide residents with far more than a food resource in their neighborhood. Nurturing families and organizations to restore cultural and family traditions connected to land and food, they help sustain economically diverse and abundant communities through civic engagement and environmental stewardship and by creating venues for prosperity.
In 1965, thousands of houses and businesses were demolished in preparation for the Park East Freeway, in the heart of Milwaukee. Thanks to neighborhood and environmental activists that mounted a strong anti-freeway campaign, as well as Mayor Henry Maier, the highway was never built. Unfortunately, the once strong and vibrant African American community, where homes and families had flourished, was already dismantled. The land remained empty until the late 1970s, when Milwaukee County gave the go-ahead to a Garfield Avenue community garden under the leadership of the Milwaukee County Cooperative Extension (MCCE).
Later, when Milwaukee Public Schools enlarged the Brown Street Academy play area and parking lot in exchange for the land, the school district paid for an irrigation system and upgraded the perimeter fence. A youth garden quadrant was added to the garden and eventually it was named Alice’s Garden, in honor of Alice Meade-Taylor, a former MCCE executive director.
At the invitation of the MCCE 4-H and Youth Development departments, SeedFolks Youth Ministry, under the leadership of Venice R. Williams, was invited into the garden in 2006 to further develop its urban agricultural programming and expand youth and family initiatives. SeedFolks introduced programs such as the Garden Mosaics Earn & Learn, SeedFolks Reading Circles, Reclaiming and Nourishing Family Traditions, and Brown Boys Bonding Thru Books.
With Resilient Cities’ assistance, the two-acre garden property underwent a redesign and reconstruction in 2009-2010 to accommodate public garden plots, programmatic garden areas, and facilities that help promote healthy eating choices. Physical improvements were made possible through funding support from private and public entities.
Walnut Way Conservation Corp.
After the Park East Freeway demolition, Walnut Way, located in the same area as Alice’s Garden, fell prey to boarded-up houses, drug trafficking, daily sporadic gunfire and prostitution. Today, thanks to co-founder Sharon Adams, who returned to her ancestral home after 30 years of living and working out of state, these depredations are being replaced by new and restored homes, community initiatives and a spirit of hope and renewal.
Walnut Way residents and volunteers have years of successful experience in urban ecology-based initiatives. These include nearly eliminating drug and prostitution activity in the neighborhood; creating and managing multiple, high-production community gardens; conducting profitable sales of garden produce and ongoing gardening and nutrition education programs for youth and adults; launching a stormwater education program; installing rain gardens, rain barrels and other strategies to manage stormwater runoff at the neighborhood level; establishing a small shade-tree nursery to expand the urban tree canopy; and converting a former drug house into a beautiful, turn-of-the-20th-century restoration that serves as a neighborhood gathering spot for educational and social purposes.
Strong working partnerships with other community entities strengthen Walnut Way programs. Affiliations include Growing Power, Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful, Milwaukee Economic Development Corporation, the Department of City Development, Milwaukee Area Technical College Landscape Horticultural program, University of Wisconsin (UW) Extension, UW-Milwaukee, Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA), and many more from multiple sectors.
Beyond the obvious benefits, Walnut Way’s initiatives have renewed residents’ connections to African American cultural roots, built a sense of community involvement and independence, and taught valuable skills to youth and adult residents.
From CRC’s vantage point, growing food brings people together and breaks down racial and ethnic barriers in ways that few other enterprises can. “It’s a great strategy for greening a city, dealing with wastewater, addressing urban blight, remediating and repurposing factory buildings and making neighborhoods safe, as well as many other positive outcomes. Just as important, it creates beauty—and we should never underestimate the value of that or the role it plays in our environment,” explains Davis Kipcak
Although we can all become effective food activists and help peel back the layers of complexity surrounding our food system, Davis Kipcak recommends doing it in baby steps. “Start by making conscious decisions about what you eat today,” she advises. “If it’s a loaf of bread, think about where the wheat was grown, the farmer that grew it, who milled the flour, baked the bread, and got it to your kitchen. Unfortunately, we’ve become increasingly detached from feeding ourselves in this most basic way. Being more mindful is a great first step to food activism and to building a more resilient Milwaukee, one family and one neighborhood at a time.”
Center for Resilient Cities, 1234 N. 10th St., Ste. 200, Milwaukee. For more information, call 414-289-7799 or visit ResilientCities.org.