As I mentioned in a previous post Milwaukee proposed an urban agriculture plan for the Bloomberg Mayor’s challenge. Milwaukee’s proposal is now a finalist. More information can be found here: Milwaukee a finalist in Bloomberg challenge – JSOnline.
When my grandmother and her five siblings were growing up during the Great Depression, they remember my great-grandmother adding an extra cup of water to the soup when she saw someone walking up the road by their house. This summer, I discovered that the main ingredient in the soup my grandmother made to sustain her family and generously shared with hungry strangers was lamb’s quarters. Lamb’s quarters is a hardy weed, and most often pulled and rooted out in gardens across America, though its leaves are very nutritious. This summer, I ate lamb’s quarters and several other wild edibles allowed to grow alongside more cultivated fruits and vegetables in the garden at Casa Maria Catholic Worker Hospitality House, a shelter for women and children, and Harmony, the house where the workers live. Along with learning incredible amounts about permaculture gardening through trial and error practice and the guidance of Alicia and Neal, I also connected with the most important part of my grandmother’s story: providing for our fellow human beings.
Food production and consumption is radically different from when my great-grandmother was picking lamb’s quarters during the Depression. Larger metropolitan areas like Milwaukee are especially changed by the industrial food system, which allows cities to be significantly removed from food sources. According to Will Allen, the founder of Growing Power, Milwaukee’s largest urban agriculture initiative, less than 1% of the food eaten in Milwaukee is grown locally. Growing Power’s goal is to increase this percentage to 10%, while at the same time providing jobs and decreasing waste by collecting fruit, vegetable, and brewery waste to create compost (Marquette University, 4/11/12).
Gardening this summer has brought me closer to my roots. Most of us today, particularly those of us living in urban areas, have lost nearly all connection with where our food comes from. This is an amazing progress and shift since many, myself included are only two generations removed from agrarian life. Three of my grandparents were born and raised on farms in the central to southern plains states. They grew up with direct contact with the produce they raised and with the livestock they slaughtered. This proximity to food and the labor that goes into growing it necessitates a different appreciation for food, both locally grown and imported. Certainly, I feel gardening has given me a different appreciation for food.
It is incredibly rewarding to walk into a beautiful place filled with greens and flowers and know that within reach in any direction are delicious edibles, both common and “strange.” An even greater reward comes from looking at how food can revitalize a community. Casa Maria has a small urban garden that provides the families staying at the hospitality house and the workers who support it with fresh vegetables and fruit. This summer, I was also able to explore other urban gardening and urban agriculture initiatives. City projects like community gardens help support those interested in providing fresh food for themselves and their friends by providing space. Large urban farms such as Growing Power can be hugely successful not only in providing the local community with food, but also in engaging the community to meet its needs and to be a source of change in the urban areas where poverty and food desserts are most prevalent. Overall, the summer garden internship at Casa Maria and my exploration of urban agriculture and sustainable urban food systems have been incredibly rewarding and has given me great insight on how we can use food to support social justice and social justice to cultivate peace. I would like to thank the Szymczak family for their generous fellowship grant and the support they offer to Marquette students interested in exploring peacemaking and thank the Center for Peacemaking at Marquette for its support and direction as I developed this project. I look forward to sharing my experiences with center participants and the larger Marquette community later this fall.
Check out this article about the community building aspect of farmers markets: On the Farmers Market Frontier, It’s Not Just About Profit – NPR.
Check out this article about Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett‘s decision to win “The Mayor’s Challenge” with urban agriculture proposals: Barrett’s response to Bloomberg challenge will focus on urban agriculture, foreclosures – JSOnline.
Aside from working in the gardens at Casa Maria and Harmony, I have also had the opportunity to shadow shifts at the hospitality house. Through these shifts, I have seen the product of a long history at work. The Catholic Worker movement was started during the Great Depression by Dorothy Day. It began with a series of hospitality houses that sought to provide for the needs of the homeless, particularly women and children. Hospitality houses such as Casa, are a continuing presence in many cities throughout the US. Casa Maria hospitality house provides room for four women and their children. While staying at Casa, the women are provided with food and other necessities. Casa also runs a small clothing donation shed.
The funding for Casa is entirely donations based. Not wanting to have its values compromised, the Catholic Worker movement has always steered clear from accepting money from the federal government. Casa does not even have tax-exempt status. The hospitality house is supported by local donations of both money and useable goods such as food and household goods. Most notably, Casa and other Catholic Worker houses rely on the time donations of the workers. The workers as Casa all have part time jobs to support themselves and the houses. They also volunteer time each week to take shifts at the hospitality house. Shifts at the house are from 9:00am-2:00pm, 2:00-6:00pm, and 6:00-10:00pm. In the first two shifts, the worker prepares lunch or dinner for the guests and any workers that wish to eat it. The worker is also responsible for other duties including cleaning, laundry, and household maintenance. The guests also help with these chores and are welcome to cook meals for the house if they would like.
Urban gardening has fit perfectly with the Catholic Worker mission from the beginning. Peter Maurin, co-founder of the movement, focused on the Green Revolution and creating local food systems. Some of the original Catholic Worker communities were farm communes. Today, access to quality food is an extension of the social and economic justice that the Catholic Worker movement has always sought, and this continues to be reflected in worker houses across the country. The gardens at Casa Maria show a commitment to this part of the Catholic Worker mission. Not only are we providing fresh produce for the workers and the families staying at Casa, we are also creating an example for change in the community. As I was watching the documentary Forks Over Knives, a documentary about plant-based diets, a featured M.D. reflected, “Poor people are poor in everything.” From this statement, he meant that by virtue of being poor, people with low incomes have less choice in the food they buy and less access to the choices widely available. Small-scale urban gardening and large-scale urban farms, if incorporated into the neediest urban communities have the potential to fill this void and revitalize the community.
Late summer, the garden is flourishing with tomato plants so large that they are falling over. The tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, hops, squash, and beans are all doing well.
Above, is the area behind casa full of green vegetation.
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As part of my study of urban agriculture, I felt that it was important to understand the food distribution systems in addition to food production systems within Milwaukee. To do this, I made a simple and by no means extensive study of grocery prices in the surrounding area. Just a disclaimer, I would not consider my observations as conclusive because I surveyed only limited stores. The observations are just that: observations, and as such portray a general trend that seems to fit the information I have already discussed about food deserts in urban areas. Two factors that I tried to explore are the comparable prices of food in downtown and surrounding areas and the availability of food in lower-income areas.
This map shows the six grocery stores that I used to compare prices. I shopped at two traditional grocery stores, a “higher end” grocery store, a grocery store with a greater variety of ethnic options, and two Walmarts. These stores were spread over the downtown, north side, and south side areas. I did not visit any stores in the suburbs for comparison.
There really was no difference in price between Pick’n Save and Metro Market, despite the belief of many college students. Metro Market as a whole appears more expensive because it has more expensive “selective options” such as organic produce and hormone-free meats. The greater selection in this area is more expensive. However, when you compare the two stores prices for the same basic lines of goods, they are the same. Also contrary to common thought, the Pick’n Save directly downtown was not significantly more expensive than the one on the north side. The slight disparity was likely due to sales since I visited the two stores on separate weekends. The two Walmarts also had average prices that were comparable regardless of their locations around the city.
As a whole, Walmart was clearly the cheaper choice for nearly all goods. It’s heavily processed foods were on average the closest to those at traditional grocery stores, while its produce was significantly cheaper. However, the Walmart on the north side does not carry fresh produce or whole meat products (though they do carry an array of frozen fried chicken products, bratwurst, bacon, and hotdogs). Though the lack of fresher foods may be due to the close location of the Pick’n Save, the lack of fresh produce still reduces choice for people who do all of their primary shopping at Walmart.
El Rey, though more expensive for items like milk, eggs, yogurt, and cheese, was by far the cheapest option for produce. It offered less variety and had less variety of highly processed foods.
This map shows the results of a Google Maps search for “grocery stores” in the neighborhood around Casa. The pinned results includes convenience stores and small “groceries.” None appears to carry fresh produce and focus mostly on processed snack foods and alcohol. This map demonstrates the food desert problem that is the plight of many inner city neighborhoods. The grocery stores exist, and in this case they are not extraordinarily far away. However, when the population has little access to cars and public transportation is time consuming and difficult, grocery shopping becomes most feasible at convenience stores within walking distance. The same is true for the neighborhood around Growing Power on the north side. For this reason, organizations like Growing Power and small-scale gardens like those at Casa are important to helping provide fresh food in these areas.
Maps courtesy of Google Maps.
The garden is progressing well. Soon, we will be able to harvest late summer vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, and chard. The rain this morning was definitely appreciated after so many hot dry days. As our work in the garden slows and reaches a lull, I have begun to put together a binder of garden photos with notes on the experiences we have had growing each plant. Here is an example:
Planting: Planted early in the spring.
Location: Raised and regular beds behind Harmony. The shade seemed to provide for a longer growing season.
Harvesting: Lettuce was ready to harvest throughout late May and June. Lettuce bolted and became bitter mid-July
Other notes: Treated a slug problem with bowls of beer and Diatomaceous Earth (DE) powder.