By Ariele Vaccaro
It’s no secret that Milwaukee is spotted with food deserts struggling to find fresh, healthy food on a daily basis.
What some have coined as the “urban agriculture movement” is making strides to shrink those deserts, however.
Rather than depending on grocery stores to supply what they need, Milwaukee residents are taking it upon themselves to grow their own food — and they’re sharing it with their neighbors.
Now, even local public schools are joining the movement.
Susie Melendez is parent coordinator at Bradley Tech High School.
A year ago, she laid the roots of an urban garden on a small plot of land just across the street from campus.
“I love gardening, I’ve always have had a garden, whether it’s a porch garden or a backyard garden,” said Melendez.
She discovered that she wanted to bring her hobby of growing healthy food to Bradley Tech.
She, with the help of the Captain Planet Foundation and AmeriCorps, set up beds for a variety of fruits and vegetables. at the 4th St. and National Ave. plot.
This year, she’s doing it again, and about 200 Bradley Tech and Vieau School Community Learning Center (CLC) students are helping.
Planting began in early June.
Since then, students have been frequenting the garden to water, move soil, and harvest.
Eric Walker is one of those students. As a Bradley Tech senior, he is working at the garden to fulfill a requirement for volunteer hours.
Since June, he’s been helping, alongside his classmates, to build planters and water the tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, and other plants.
Walker can see the neighborhood benefiting from his work.
“I know sometimes I see food shelters, and they kind of pick some of the food and take it.
So that’s good, because it’s helping some people out,” Walker said.
That food pantry Walker mentioned? It’s the Hope House on Orchard and 2nd Streets, run by Friedens Community Ministries.
The Bradley Tech community garden supplies fresh produce to the pantry.
According to Friedens Executive Director Catherine Draeger, it’s a partnership that spells out healthy, delicious meals for the Milwaukee families who visit the Hope House.
“There’s a huge need for food, but there’s even a bigger need, a larger need for healthy food,” said Draeger.
She noted that many of the guests to the Hope House live in the Walker’s Point neighborhood, and can watch as students grow the food that they may cook with a few days later.
It’s not only city residents benefiting from the garden, though.
Draeger wants to see kids enjoy the fruits of their labor by being able to “pluck off a tomato and eat it on the spot.”
Vieau School CLC students will continue to care for the garden into the fall as part of their science courses on pollination, the environment, and agriculture.
For Walker, the garden has become a place to learn valuable social skills and build a sense of teamwork.
Bradley Tech’s garden is just beginning, too.
“We’re hoping to expand our garden, to get more residents involved, to get more partners involved, and make it something that’s truly sustainable and a vibrant piece of the community,” said Chris Piszczek, community school coordinator.
Piszczek has been working with local businesses and organizations to build partnerships.
This year, Arts at Large, a Walker’s Point nonprofit, donated the materials needed to build the garden’s large planters, of which there are seven more than were in the garden last year.
In fact, everything in the Bradley Tech community garden is donated.
Compost Crusader supplied the monstrous pile of compost sitting in one corner of the garden’s plot. Witte’s Vegetable Farm donated many of the garden’s plants.
Despite the garden’s success thus far, Melendez refuses to get ahead of herself. She wants to see the garden steadily become an urban agriculture staple in Milwaukee and continue to make food deserts a distant memory.
And with so many other well-known Milwaukee gardeners and urban farmers around to show the Bradley Tech community garden team the way, Piszczek is open to suggestion.
“Of course, you know, we’re learning from a lot of those folks. We’re lucky that we’re not the first people to do this, obviously, so that we’re able to draw on other community members.
Especially in this neighborhood, that’s something that a lot of residents are–” he chuckled. “I was gonna say, ‘hungry for’.”