16. Urban Possibilities: The Victory Garden Initiative of Milwaukee

In my last post about urban food forests I mentioned the contribution thereto of the Victory Garden Initiative of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  In fact, as far as I can tell, VGI is one of the most active groups out there working on urban food production — which is a major piece of the ending-hunger puzzle.  (If anyone reading this knows about other equally effective groups, please let me know so as to improve my information:  comment below or email me at chuckgyver@aceweb.com)

VGI got started after a brouhaha in 2008 or ’09 in Shorewood, Wisconsin, a bedroom-community suburb adjacent to Milwaukee, when a resident put a raised-bed vegetable garden on their “parkway”/”hellstrip”/ piece of grass between sidewalk and road that the municipality owns but the homeowner cares for.  Shorewood officials objected, while other residents supported the embattled homeowner.  (Full disclosure:  I lived in Shorewood at that time and was already growing food on the front garden of my backyard-deprived corner lot;  I naturally supported the gardener myself.)  It was another of the gardening homeowner’s defenders, however, Gretchen Meade, who got inspired to push the matter further and work towards helping residents across the greater Milwaukee area have gardens to grow food in.  Taking a hint from the victory gardens of World Wars I and II, she founded the Victory Garden Initiative in 2009.  Its motto:  “This is grassroots movement.  Move grass.  Grow food.”

VGI’s first action was the Victory Garden Blitz.  Donations of money and materials were secured and people were invited to sign up to have VGI build them a 4′ by 8′ raised bed instant garden filled with soil on Memorial Day.  Response was enthusiastic from both requesters and volunteers, and in a very few years the Blitz occupied all 3 days of Memorial Day weekend;  it has now grown to take most of the month of May to install all the raised beds requested and funded each year.  VGI’s next step has been to offer mentoring to other places to replicate the Blitz in their areas;  so far workshops have been held in Green Bay, Wisconsin and Berea, Kentucky.  If anyone reading this is interested, email blitzyourtown@victorygardeninitiative.org

Some people who want to garden just don’t have a sunny bit of land to do it in, though.  This is where community gardens are useful, and VGI has therefore also worked to get such gardening going.  A couple of dozen new community gardens now exist in the Milwaukee area as a result, but the jewel in this crown is an acre and a half of green space near one of the Milwaukee neighborhoods that most needs better access to good food.  Concordia Garden is both a community garden and also site of a youth program that partners with 3 nearby elementary schools.  In 2014 Concordia also started a program to train youths to harvest and sell organic produce from part of the garden at affordable prices at a garden Farm Stand that serves the neighborhood.  And a food forest at the site grows such plants as apples, pears, cherries, apricots, raspberries, currents, mulberries, quinces, and herbs. This food forest is available to the general public to harvest free of charge.

I’ve already reported on VGI’s Fruity Nutty Contest, begun in 2012.  VGI volunteers plant 20 to 30 trees for each winning group, including the fruit tree varieties used at Concordia and also blueberries, pawpaws, serviceberries, and hazelnuts;  some mentoring on the care of the plants is also provided. Food forests planted on private property are shared by the participating neighbors;  those on public property cane harvested by anyone.

Other services and activities offered by VGI include providing some training for Blitz garden recipients, internships and volunteer opportunities, a Food Leader Certificate training program, “Move Grass” classes on topics like aquaponics, aromatherapy, and food preservation, and dinners at local restaurants that feature local organic produce.  The group has guided its expansion by listening to what people in the community want;  its vision is that it “builds communities that grow their own food, creating a community-based, socially just environmentally nutritious food system for all.”

What especially impresses me about VGI is the wide and still-growing range of the group’s activities.  It creates beds for food-growing (3000 so far) and also food forests all over its metropolitan area, provides mentoring and classes and training in many aspects of food production and distribution, and works to create community through shared interest and effort around making there be more and better food for its city.

This is a really good model for what we need a whole lot more of in every city on Earth if we are to end hunger.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

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