Christine Kuhn laying in raised garden bed

Why We Blitz

by Christine Noelle, Director of Operations & Development

Christine Noelle laying in raised garden bed
Christine Noelle in a freshly installed Blitz bed during the 2019 Blitz

This will be my 6th time Blitzing with VGI, my 4th as an employee. I look forward to the Blitz more than I have any other task I have ever done professionally. The Blitz has a special kind of energy about it. Every time you come to a build site or to our staging area, you can feel the sense of purpose in the air. Everyone who works the Blitz believes so passionately in our vision: to build a community with a strong, vibrant, sustainable, ethical local food system. To make it so that every family has access to affordable, nutritious food.

Since the first Blitz in 2008, we have faced many challenges and have always come together stronger than ever. We’ve learned how to deal with late snowstorms, broken down trailers, keys locked in trucks, no-show volunteer crews, website registration form crashes, thrown out backs, and so so much more. Covid-19 was really a curve ball though. We had to change everything about the way we Blitz, systems that we had perfected over 11 years were suddenly useless! And yet we managed to pull it off because everyone involved believed SO passionately in the importance of the work. It took a toll on us, that is for sure. But it wasn’t the physical changes to how we did things that were hardest, it was the emotional toll it took on us. It was hearing the stories from garden recipients about not being able to find food at the grocery store and about being excited to have something, anything to do that was safely outdoors.

This is why we are once again Blitzing again this year.

I was listening to NPR on my way to the office the other week and they were covering the devastation down in Texas. It hurt my heart to hear about people literally freezing to death in their own homes. There are so many stories of grief from that natural disaster. But while the cold temps have moved on and with it most of the national news coverage from our radios and newsfeeds, there are other tragedies yet to come that you probably won’t hear about. News that NEVER seems to take front and center: the food insecurity that will result from this natural disaster. So many farms were left wasted from the cold temps. Livestock froze to death in their barns when generators went down and crops rotted in warehouses, unable to be shipped or processed. The people of Texas are not out of the woods just because it got warm again and the power came back on. There will be continued food shortages. There will be more families relying on emergency food provisions and subsidy programs like WIC and SNAP. Farmers and processors will lose their entire business from this.  And this is on TOP of the havoc and stress that Covid-19 had already put on their lives.

There is so much more I could say about the stresses on the American food system over the past year. Not just in Texas, but all over the country for many, many different reasons. But the point is:

THIS is why we Blitz.

THIS is why I, and everyone here at VGI, believes so passionately in the Victory Garden Blitz and our mission as a whole. Because the Western industrialized American food system is simply not equipped to provide for us during times of disaster. (I would argue that it is NEVER really equipped to provide for us, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post for another day!) Every day in this country, people go hungry. And every year we see the holes in the food system grow. The Flint water crisis. California wild fires. Bee colony collapses. Hurricanes. Droughts. Floods. Covid19. Each time, people are left with an uncertain food supply.

The Blitz absolutely will NOT solve this. There is so much that needs to change in our food system and the way we grow, buy, sell, and produce food in this country to have a truly stable food system. But the Blitz can help families weather the literal and figurative storms better. The Blitz is part of a larger movement to return to a food system where people have power over their food supply. Where food is grown to feed families and not refined into unhealthy additives to fill the cookie aisles at the grocery store. Where people of all ages come together to share their knowledge of growing, cooking, and preserving food and pass that along to the next generation. Through the Blitz, we help to give more people in Milwaukee access to local food and connect people to a network of support, education, skill-sharing, and hope.

 

MY hope today is that you will join us. I hope you’ll buy a bed! I hope I’ll see you out on a crew helping to build a bed! I hope you’ll come to community dinner. I hope to see you at our farm, picking berries to take home. I hope you’ll share our social media posts. I hope you’ll donate some tools, time, or money to help us build this vision of a nutritious, socially just, environmentally sustainable local food system for ALL.

To buy a bed: https://victorygardeninitiative.org/blitz-registration/

To volunteer: https://victorygardeninitiative.org/blitz-volunteer-registration-hide/

To sponsor a bed: https://victorygardeninitiative.org/sponsor-a-blitz-garden/

To donate to VGI: https://victorygardeninitiative.org/donate/

To give an item from our wish list: https://victorygardeninitiative.org/wish-list/

To sign up for our newsletter: https://victorygardeninitiative.org/subscribe/

To follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/VictoryGardenMKE

To follow us on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/victorygardeni/?hl=en

 

I’m usually the one behind the camera, but I’ve been caught is a few Blitz pics over the years and it brings joy to my heart to look back at it all 🙂

large basket of freshly harvested carrots, cabbage, broccoli, and fennel

Healing a Food System on the Verge of Collapse

by Christine Kuhn, Co-Executive Director 

     Here at Victory Garden Initiative, we’ve been working on a vision for a community-led, environmentally sustainable, socially just, and nutritious food system right here in Milwaukee since 2008. At our new organizational headquarters in the Harambee neighborhood we run a 1.5 acre urban farm and just finished construction on our community kitchen and classroom space in February! On this “Urban Farm Campus” we envision a community coming together around the garden and table with neighbors to grow and cook food together, children learning about biology in the pollinator gardens in their own backyards, chefs cooking up local produce at local restaurants, and neighborhood stores stocking products created by their neighbors. This food system is as beautiful as it is strong! It provides not only nutritious food for the body, but for the mind as well. Our staff have been passionately working to build the programs and local infrastructure to make this vision a reality.

Like many other organizations, we are feeling the strain of Coronavirus. We’ve had to pause our community events and classes and, aside from our Farm Manager, our staff is currently working from home. But Wisconsin’s Safer at Home orders only confirm what I know to be true in the fiber of my being: that food production is and always shall be an “essential activity.” 

In the time of Coronavirus, we all know that toilet paper has bempty store shelves during coronavirus pandemicecome a hot commodity, but other store shelves are emptying too. Bread, meat, canned goods, dried beans, eggs, milk, and the list goes on.  Meanwhile, I keep seeing news stories and updates from major grocery stores and politicians assuring us that the supply chain remains strong and that shelves are only empty because of panic buying. All will be back to normal soon, they say. We just have to ride it out, they assure.

Personally, I’m not reassured.

The reality is, our food system has been broken for a very long time and it is only now, during an international crisis, that we can truly see the unfortunate ramifications of this.  While some families can afford to stock up for months of social distancing, others are on food assistance and can barely afford a weeks’ worth of food at any time. While videos are cropping up encouraging people to bake their own artisan bread, there are people living in apartments where access to a working stove and refrigerator is not even a reality. And while supply chain experts are telling us that shelves will be restocked soon, one has to wonder how they can be so certain of this, when our food is being shipped from across the country and across the globe? Whole countries are on lock down right now and 30+ states have enacted versions of Stay at Home orders. Yes, food production, manufacturing, and agriculture are all “essential activities,” and life goes on. But how can you ever be certain about the stability of a system which relies on a complex network of moving parts, far-flung across the globe? All it takes is for one piece to buckle under the pressure and the entire system collapses.

What if too many truckers get sick and shipping routes falter? What if too many of the migrant workers and seasonal farm crews can’t work the large farms in California, Florida, and the Corn Belt in the Midwest that supply most of our country’s grain and produce? What if there are outbreaks at grocery stores and they don’t have the staff to stay open? What if all air traffic is grounded? 

Maybe it won’t happen this time. Maybe COVID19 is not the straw that breaks the food chain’s back. But what about next time? What about the next virus? The next world war? The next drought? The next recession? The depletion of oil reserves? Are we certain we will have enough food to feed our families?

Infographic by Tim Norton of Oxfam Australia

I don’t ask these questions to scare you, ignite panic, or bring more dreariness to an already stressful situation. Instead, I ask these questions because I believe there is a better way and that it is not too late for us all to do something right now to build a better food system for today and tomorrow. The answer is for us to stop relying on a global food system and to start building a stronger, more resilient local one, in all places at all times. I’m not saying we can’t have Costa Rican coffee, California almonds, Atlantic Cod, or even Oreo’s ever again. But we can and should produce enough food locally to supply our own communities. Global food products should be a welcome addition to our own food supply, not a necessity.

While we can’t all be full-time farmers, we can all grow some of our own food. We can grow it in our yards, on our WWI poster that reads "Your Victory Garden Counts More Than Ever" with produce and garden in backgroundbalconies, at our schools, in our windowsills, and on our rooftops. We can grow it in our basements with the right lights. So many people have wide open grassy lawns which could be turned into productive growing space, not to mention the number of vacant, overgrown lots scattered across our cities. Now is the time to seriously consider transforming these spaces, and our lives, to build our capacity for self-reliance down the line.

This, my friends, is where Victory Gardens come in. Victory Garden Initiative has been on the front lines of this work in Milwaukee for 12 years now, building infrastructure in Southeast Wisconsin for growing local food. Each year, we install 500+ raised garden beds across Milwaukee. In 2020, we had hoped to finally breach the 5000 mark but with the current state of the world, we probably won’t make that milestone this year. But we also won’t be closing up shop either. Now more than ever we are determined to forge ahead and install as many gardens as we can to increase Milwaukee’s capacity for local food production. As of writing this, we’ve already sold 120+ gardens so far and, barring any drastic changes in the pandemic situation and recommendations from health officials, we are committed to installing each and every one of them! Not only that, but we are hopeful to sell even more, particularly in our organization’s home neighborhood of Harambee, a neighborhood that already faces food insecurity and economic disparities. These will only be heightened after Coronavirus sweeps through our nation.

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In addition to building more beds for individuals to grow food, we’re also ramping up production at our own urban farm. The Victory Garden Urban Farm in Harambee has always been a community farm, serving as a greenspace for the neighborhood to gather and a hub for educational activities to teach youth and adults how to grow their own food. In the wake of Coronavirus, it is even more important to provide these services. Our new Farm Manager, Aaron, is already hard at work planting the crops for this season and plans are underway for expanding our Pay-What-You-Can Roadside Farmstand, free Community U-Pick area, and on-site Community Gardens! We urge everyone who is growing food to consider sharing the bounty of your harvest with your neighbors or local food pantry!

If you can’t grow food (we’ll dispel those myths later), you can still do your part by supporting local producers. Unless you are reading this from Antarctica or the International Space Station (please drop me a line if you are, that newly prepared beds ready for plantingwould be incredible!) I guarantee that you have a local farmer within ~100 miles of you. Someone, somewhere, is growing and selling food. Support them. Buy from your local farmer’s market. Visit your local co-op. Look for products from your own region at the grocery store, or talk to the store manager about getting those local products in. Visit roadside farm stands and eat at restaurants that source local ingredients. Finally, be sure to talk them up on social media and leave a positive review so others can find and support them them too!

 

We will eventually beat Coronavirus and the world will return to some semblance of normal. But it will have a lasting impact on our society and it is up to all of us to make sure that we learn from this experience and make the world a better place because of it. We can’t return to the status quo. Now is the time to Move Grass and Grow Food!



For information and updates about the Great Milwaukee Victory Garden Blitz, please check out our website here or reach out to Montana, our Community Programs Manager at montana@victorygardeninitiative.org.

Christine can be reached at christine.kuhn@victorygardeninitiative.org

 

woman holding sign that reads "I pledge to grow more food"
Montana Morris, Community Programs Manager
woman laying down in a newly constructed raised garden bed
Christine Kuhn, Co-Executive Director