By Dylan Deprey
Here’s a joke.
What is the last thing you’ll find in a corner store? Hint: It is most definitely not chips and soda. Answer: A salad.
It wasn’t the best joke, but for Milwaukee it was a pretty accurate statement.
Neighborhoods across Milwaukee may lack sand, camels and the occasional palm tree, but there is a desert out there…a food desert.
On Milwaukee’s Near West Side, the “neighborhood of neighborhood’s,” access to fresh produce can be just as hard as finding water in the middle of the Sahara.
Marquette University and Near West Side Partners (NWSP) are teaming up to put students, faculty and the community to the test.
Dr. Michael Lovell, President of Marquette University, announced the “Near West Side Grocery Store Challenge,” on Jan. 20.
“Groceries is the number one thing I hear from almost everyone I meet with, and it’s something we’ve been explaining for a couple of years now,” said Kelsey Otero, Associate Director for Marquette University’s Social Innovation Team.
Over the semester, Marquette students will get the opportunity to work with the community to brainstorm innovative ideas, and create a viable and affordable fresh food source for the Near West Side community.
“The end goal is to put some of our best minds to the test to come up with some innovative solutions,” Otero said. “Just saying that a grocery store needs to come to this area is not innovative because it is not going to solve some of the problems that we have.”
Following an Alumni kickoff event on Jan. 31, students will learn about the Near West Side neighborhood through conversations with the community and organizations in the grocery industry.
NWSP Executive Director, Keith Stanley, said the NWSP would provide the incite as a platform for community engagement with the project.
“Our goal is to continue providing insider guidance from our stakeholders, but also data and research involving our neighborhoods to really inform students,” Stanley said.
Stanley added that community forums would be announced later this month.
“This is exciting for us because we are allowing the students this opportunity,” Stanley said. “We live and work on the Near West side and now we can connect through this.”
Teams will choose one of six focus areas to work on over the course of the semester.
These include: leveraging existing retail spaces like corner stores and gas stations; adding small foot print stores – west & east side of the Near West Side; researching alternative grocery models like delivery; student and community food pantries; co-ops; and food literacy.
Otero said the highlighted issues were to allow students to focuses on specific issues. This also allows to prototype multiple ideas within the community.
“We’re not saying there is one solution to grocery and food access,” Otero said. “Our hope is we have a couple of really good solutions.”
Students will develop their ideas throughout the semester, while also networking with grocery and food experts.
Following mid-semester feedback and more research, students will pitch their ideas to a panel of community members, Marquette faculty and grocery experts.
Otero hopes that the community gets involved with the project.
“We want to make sure that this is community driven and that they have an opportunity to voice their opinion,” Otero said.
“We want to charge anyone involved with the project to think outside of the box about fresh food and grocery access.”