UW-Madison partners with communities, nonprofits to address urban food insecurity

March 9, 2015

In urban areas like Milwaukee, fresh food is still out of reach for a significant percentage of the population, and people shop for meals at the corner store or convenience mart instead.

Food insecurity has implications for health, community stability and local economies, and an interdisciplinary team of UW-Madison researchers has launched a project to study ways to boost the availability and consumption of healthy food in urban communities. The project is focusing initially on Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit, three cities where food insecurity is considered extensive.

Supported by a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the team includes partners from UW-Extension, the nonprofit organization Growing PowerMichael Fields Agricultural Institute and a range of community-based organizations.

Steve Ventura
Steve Ventura

“This is an exciting project that brings together the research and educational capacity of the university with on-the-ground knowledge of community groups such as Growing Power,” says Steve Ventura, the project’s co-leader and a professor of environmental studies and soil science. “The overall goal is to integrate research, outreach, education and advocacy (to understand) how to build and maintain successful community and regional food systems and enhance implementation in communities at risk.”

Recognizing that the complex challenges of food insecurity will extend beyond the five-year project, Ventura has also helped to launch the Institute for Urban Agriculture and Nutrition. This unique cooperative currently includes seven universities, the City of Milwaukee, Growing Power, and the Milwaukee Food Council, which represents many community organizations.

“We’re helping to create a new initiative for the long haul in Milwaukee that can grow to include other agencies, organizations and businesses, and that can contribute to more sustainable and equitable urban food systems,” he says.

Monica White, an assistant professor of environmental justice with a shared appointment in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and Department of Community and Environmental Sociology, is specifically interested in the community aspect of the equation, studying the creative approaches grassroots organizations and communities of color have adopted in response to issues of hunger and food inaccessibility.

Monica White
Monica White

Take, for example, the Peaches & Greens mobile produce market, a converted ice cream truck that delivers fresh fruits and vegetables — some of it grown on community farms with volunteer assistance — to residents of inner-city Detroit who wouldn’t otherwise have access to such items.

“Urban agriculture is a way in which communities are intervening in the food system and coming up with very creative ways to do so,” says White. “This cuts across race, class, age and ability.”

Ventura points to a successful community engagement project on the south side of Milwaukee that enlisted local grocers to sponsor cooking classes and feature healthy new products appropriate for the predominantly Latino community. Now, two local community-based organizations continue these activities.

Will Allen, founder and CEO of Growing Power and co-director of the food systems research project, says in addition to engaging and empowering at-risk communities, a sustainable food system must build the infrastructure for future generations of entrepreneurs and agriculturalists.

His farm and community food center, based in Milwaukee, has become the largest urban agriculture organization in the world, with 300 acres of outside production, 25 acres of greenhouses and a large-scale aquaponics system. His team recently completed the largest farm-to-school procurement in USDA history, selling 40,000 pounds of carrots to schools in Chicago and Wisconsin. 

But organizations alone can’t solve the world’s challenges, he says. More research is needed on land access; production methods; food preparation and processing, distribution and marketing; waste recycling; and the policies and economics that surround the food supply chain.

“Are nonprofits going to build the food system that we need? No,” Allen says. “This will be done by entrepreneurs that we train and help to develop. We have to grow a lot of farmers.”

Read more about the project here