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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interning at the Great Milwaukee Victory Garden Blitz!

My name is Jenny Lehner, and I started at VGI in January 2019 as a Community Programs Intern. The 11th Annual Victory Garden Initiative BLITZ was the focus of my internship, as it was the main focus of Montana, the Community Programs Manager and my supervisor. Working with Montana and Lexi, the other Community Programs Intern, throughout the winter to help plan this event was an amazing learning experience. Lexi and I worked closely with Montana to reach out to donors, help recruit volunteers, and create and distribute promotional material. I feel honored to have been a part of the VGI team, and getting to know the other staff and interns really made my experience as an intern more than just busy work. Even on days when it was below zero, we would still be in the office at the farm house working to plan this event in May.

Jenny, modelling one of the donation drop-offs of burlap sacks from Colectivo to be used as weed barriers in the Blitz beds!

For me, the most rewarding part of my internship was actually getting to work the BLITZ and see this event in action. Even in the days right before the BLITZ I honestly wasn’t sure how it was all going to come together. To make things even more hectic, the BLITZ fell right when Lexi and I were taking our finals and graduating from UW-Milwaukee. Still, the time that I was able to spend working the event was extremely rewarding, fun, and exhausting. By the end of the two weeks I felt even closer with Montana, Lexi, and other members of the VGI staff. I also got to work with and know volunteers who shared our passion for this event and had been working the event for years. Actually getting to get out in the city and installing the garden beds with these people made my sore muscles totally worth it.

Jenny (front row, center) with VGI staff Montana (back row, right) and Christine (front row, right) and some amazing Blitz volunteers!

 

Seeing the community come together like this really gave me a sense of being a part of something bigger than myself. I genuinely felt more connected to the Milwaukee community after those two weeks than I did during my three years of going to school there. The homeowners who received the garden beds were so grateful and excited. Being a part of this year’s event from start to finish not only taught me a great deal and looks great on my resume, but it also was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.