Healthy Food for Everyone - The Victory Garden Initiative

Many of us take for granted what we have available to us when choosing the food we eat. We often try to make healthy choices at the grocery store, telling ourselves to buy more produce and less packaged foods. But what if those fresh vegetables aren’t available? For many people in Milwaukee, grocery stores are hard to come by.

The 2015-2016 Milwaukee Community Health Assessment shows people in lower income neighborhoods are nine times more likely to have less access to healthy food choices than those in higher socioeconomic areas. The report defines a “food desert” as a “neighborhood where a high proportion of residents have low access (more than one mile in an urban setting) to a supermarket or large grocery store.” Food deserts are very prevalent in our city. Access is even harder when residents have to rely on public transportation. Their options are corner stores with rotting produce (if there is any produce at all) or a long bus trip to a higher income neighborhood with more grocery stores.

Montana Morris, the community programs manager and event coordinator at the Victory Garden Initiative (VGI), sees the answers to these problems in urban farming and food education. For 10 years, the organization has been providing healthy food access to the community through events like their Garden BLITZ, their pay-what-you-can farm stand every Tuesday and their upcoming fifth annual Farmraiser harvest festival on Saturday, Sept. 28, from 4-7:30 p.m.

The organization started the Farmraiser to advocate the basic human right for everyone to grow their own food. Since their first year, VGI installed raised beds in yards around the city through their Garden BLITZ event, an annual 15-day event with 300 volunteers installing 500 raised beds.

VGI has become deeply rooted in the Harambe neighborhood. On any given day, you may walk into the garden space hidden between bungalow houses to find local kids doing summersaults amongst the crops. It feels like a refuge away from the busy city. Growing our own food is “helping us personally get in touch with the changes of nature, learning how to work with nature and getting something rewarding out of it,” says Morris.

Morris regularly works with kids that have never seen food pulled from the ground. Not knowing what a carrot was, one youth told Morris it looks like a Cheeto. Such a profound moment allowed Morris to realize how disconnected people are from their food and how easy it is to overlook what is available to us. “I realized that education was the most important part [of the solution],” she says. Through education on healthy food, VGI puts power in the hands of the people to become self-reliant food sources.

Learn more at victorygardeninitiative.org.

Read the article on the Shepherd Express.

Pat Wilborn, Fish Farmer from Port Washington

When Pat Wilborn learned about aquaponics 12 years ago, it opened his eyes to a sustainable way of farming and he knew immediately that this was something he wanted to pursue. “I bought into the concept and decided it was time to give something back,” says Wilborn. He and his wife, Amy Otis-Wilborn, first built a small aquaponics model in their home in Port Washington, and after refining the process, they eventually built a 3,500-gallon aquaponics system called Port Fish. The nonprofit has a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model and also sells their larger fish to local restaurants. But most importantly, Pat Wilborn explains, the farm is a teaching device.

Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (farming without soil). The system works in a cycle: Fish create waste, which is then used to fertilize the water where the plants grow. When the plants take in those nutrients, they clean the water, which in turn is transferred back to the fish tanks. Or as Wilborn states: “You feed the fish, they create waste, plants grow.” Simple enough.

It’s hugely beneficial for the environment because it conserves water, fertilizes plants with natural fertilizer, has no run-off into rivers and lakes, and the list goes on. But unfortunately, aquaponics is not used on a large commercial scale despite the environmental benefits because it is expensive, something that the Wilborns realized when they started their first aquaponics experiment. They make some revenue with their CSA and restaurant fish sales, but they continue to put money into their organization to keep it running. The Wilborns, however, look at their venture in a different way. “It’s not a money-making opportunity,” says Wilborn, “but an opportunity to expand the capacity of knowledge.”

Traditional agriculture techniques must adapt to our changing climate, and people need to be educated about possible solutions. That is why the Wilborns and James Godsil of the Sweet Water Foundation (a supporter of Port Fish) strongly believe that aquaponics should be taught in schools. Port Fish has been working with the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and Johnson Controls to install an aquaponics system in Browning Elementary School. Located in the greenhouse on the school grounds, the small garden is expected to be finished next month and incorporated into the curriculum. Pat Wilborn’s intention is to help the school staff be self-sufficient in terms of maintaining the garden. The greenhouse allows the students to get out of the classroom and learn by getting their hands dirty—literally. “They have to get over the fact that they don’t know anything about it and just start poking it,” says Wilborn. When the children are physically involved in the growing process, they get a chance to see where their food comes from and how to lead healthy lifestyles.

Aquaponics has given Pat and Amy a healthier outlook on life and encouraged them to change their diets to whole-food and plant-based diets. In 12 years, they have built a sustainable farm, a strong connection to their community and a space for learning. Wilborn smiles while standing in his greenhouse and says, “The people that come through here benefit, I benefit, the community benefits.”

Learn more at portfish.org