Rural America

Monday, Aug 31, 2015, 8:39 pm

Busting the Myth of the Food Desert: A Farmer’s Market in Milwaukee Sautés Statistics

By John Collins

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A transaction takes place at the Fondy Farmer's Market in Milwaukee.   www.radiomilwaukee.org / Google images

By any economic measure the 53206 zip code—part of a 120 block neighborhood on Milwaukee’s north side—is among Wisconsin’s most struggling. Sixty-six percent of households earn less than $30,000 per year while the number of violent crimes and the rate of unemployment rank consistently higher than state and national averages. But how’s the food?

In 2009, a Community Food Assessment (CFA) found that in this community, where 96 percent of the people are African American, 89 percent of the food retailers were comprised of “convenience stores, gas stations, fast food restaurants and food pantries.” This reality, not unlike a Slurpee®, is cold and utterly lacking vitamins. But it’s not uncommon in low-income urban areas. Neither, of course, are the disproportionately higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease—maladies empirically linked to the prolonged consumption of exactly the cuisine one encounters at convenience stores, gas stations and fast food restaurants.

Science suggests people should eat fruits and vegetables

From May to November, however, the local Fondy Farmer’s Market, now in its 97th year, operates one of the largest and most culturally diverse open-air markets in the region—connecting the 53206 community (and surrounding neighborhoods with similarly dismal access to fresh produce) to 30 local farmers.

Now a growing trend nationally, Fondy became the first farmer’s market in Wisconsin to accept to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in the form of Electronic Benefit Cards (EBTs). Going against the standard “cash-only” business model practiced in many open-air markets (a technological headache, at first, for farmers selling their goods outside) has allowed more people access to fresh food. This applies not just to the families receiving SNAP assistance (53 percent in this Milwaukee community), but also to the 21st century consumer-at-large who’s been subconsciously phasing out cash in favor of plastic for years. In 2014, Fondy EBT sales totaled $43,392—10 times the national average of $4,628.

Stop calling it a food desert

The executive director of Fondy Farmer’s Market, Young Kim, is a second generation Korean American from the deep south—born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, than raised in Louisiana and North Carolina. With a background in social services, not agriculture, he’s been overseeing Fondy Market, a 501(c)(3), since 2003. Prior to moving to Wisconsin, Kim, was working with the homeless population in Seattle, Washington, which, in recent years, has become one of the largest in the nation. Reflecting on that experience, Kim says:

“I felt like I was running around inside a house, placing buckets of water to catch the raindrops coming through ceiling. But I didn’t feel like anybody was climbing up on the roof and fixing it.”

The metaphor speaks to a mindset Kim calls “institutional momentum.” He says a lot of organizations formed to address social issues should be actively trying to put themselves out of a job. Instead, they find themselves becoming a business.

“When you have a large non-profit, one of the ways to demonstrate legitimacy is to provide services to a lot of people,” says Kim. “But then you become a service organization [instead of an organization trying to correct a situation]. Before you know it, you’ve become an industry.”

Overcoming “institutional momentum” can seem counter-intuitive at first. So much so that Kim admits his initial approach to the issues facing the north side of Milwaukee was wrong.

“I called this neighborhood a ‘food desert,’ ” says Kim. “I thought wholesale change needed to happen and be forced on this neighborhood.”

“Food desert,” a term used to describe the lack of access to healthy things to eat in an urban area, is one Kim no longer uses. He explains:

“This is a very food opinionated culture. People take great pride in being called a good cook and it’s not a compliment batted around lightly. I’ve since learned that to do this kind of work the right way—for long-term affect—there needs to be a sharing of power. You have to back off and listen. A lot of the good ideas come from the neighborhood and our customers themselves.”

(Young Kim, Executive Director of the Fondy Food Center / http://fondymarket.org)

Culture and calories

As Mark Kurlansky writes in his 2002 book Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History, “Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture.”
And while the current state of American food culture (indeed much of it trademarked) remains hard to pin down—somewhere between $6 asparagus water and something called a Baconator—it might not be too late to rethink what we eat, why we eat it and where it comes from.

That mindset, as opposed to “institutional momentum,” informs Kim’s strategy. He says that every culture in Milwaukee has a healthy eating tradition and that it’s up to everyone to explore—to look back—and find their culinary heritage. Thus, cooking demonstrations, competitions and the interactive exchange of healthy recipes are an integral part of the Fondy Market mission.

Last July, while researching African-American cooking traditions prior to an upcoming weekend collard green competition, Kim came across a cookbook written by a woman during the Harlem Renaissance. Sifting through the pages, he was struck by a section in which the writer described how chickens would be raised specifically for frying, once a year, in the Spring.

“Of course back then you had to catch a chicken, kill it, pluck it, gut it and slice it up,” says Kim. “Then you had to use the fat you saved in a coffee can all year—you couldn’t go to a grocery store and buy a 5 gallon jug of canola oil. It was a once in a while thing, a celebration.”

When it comes to healthy eating, instant abundance can and does have some unintended cultural consequences. Presumably for as long as humans have lived in groups, whatever they most liked eating has been a driving part of how that culture defined itself. But while some things never change, technology does. In the age of the supermarket and driv-thru, mass-produced cultural favorites can now be purchased, indefinitely stored and consumed, in any quantity, courtesy of the frozen food aisle and/or 24-hour delivery window (the latter currently operated by people who, in the opinion of this reporter, will soon be replaced by robots blissfully undeterred by the concept of a livable wage).

“At some point a lot of the celebratory foods that were eaten as once-in-a-while treats became everyday foods,” says Kim. “In Mexican-American cuisine, for example, there’s the tamale. That used to be a very labor-intensive treat, involving whole families getting together to make them once or twice a year. Now, thanks to our industrialized food system, you can get all those ingredients and make them all the time. But that’s not healthy eating.”

Indeed, every culture has its favorites and while it’s safe to assume the celebratory foods we enjoy tasted every bit as good to our ancestors, it becomes important to remember the context of that food’s origins. Or better yet, how that context has changed. The fact is, most of the western hemisphere is doing less manual labor now than at any time in our past.

“People are starting to wake up to the fact that they’re not working on the farm anymore,” says Kim, “they’re maybe clicking a mouse, typing, standing up every now and then to go file something—we’re not using the same amount of calories as we were when these recipes were created. I think that there needs to be a return back to how our grand parents and great-grandparents ate.”

The foodies of 53206

Of course, any attempt to return to a more environmentally balanced, sensible diet is contingent upon access to fresh alternatives (to, say, Taco Bell’s Quesarito). But for that to happen, people in a community have to want options. According to Kim, his customers in Milwaukee very much do.

“The growing awareness and enthusiasm for good food has penetrated all levels of society,” he says. “The 53206 is struggling by every economic measure, but the conversations taking place here are sophisticated—I’m often asked, for example, if the corn we’re selling has been genetically modified.”

It isn’t. In 2010, the Fondy Farm Project was established to connect local farmers (many of them Hmong immigrants from Southeast Asia) with affordable plots and the agricultural infrastructure needed to grow organic produce for the market. (Located in rural Port Washington, just north of Milwaukee, a more thorough description of Fondy Farms can be read here.)

It stands to reason that a satisfactory relationship between a community and its food might be best established when residents understand (and trust) where their food comes from.

“I do think that local trumps organic,” says Kim in response to a question about the merits of sustainable farming, “I would rather eat a locally produced tomato that was grown 30 minutes away from me than an organic tomato from Mexico.”

“Agriculture hasn’t been kind to everybody”

Like many cities in the Midwest and Northeast, the majority of Milwaukee’s African-American population settled here during the Great Migration—a period between 1910 and 1970 when black people left the south in droves in hopes of putting centuries of enslavement and poverty behind them. That migration, perhaps put too simply, was motivated by a desire to get as far away from Southern farming traditions as possible.

“These people were being exploited through agriculture and there was a more modern way of life calling up north‑in Chicago, New York, Newark, Boston or Oakland and a lot of people made the conscious decision to leave it behind,” says Kim. “So when you reintroduce the idea of agriculture to people that live in this neighborhood, you can’t assume folks want to be involved with farming.”

Rural communities across the country were in no way immune to the pervasive 20th century march of brightly lit peddlers of readily available, affordable, overly-processed caloric garbage. But as our nation settles into the obese aftermath, the correlation between proximity to arable land and access to trustworthy food can’t be ignored. When it comes to suggesting a struggling African-American community should readily embrace local agriculture, neither can our collective history.

Alice’s Garden, an organization that teaches urban kids about the process and business of responsible agriculture, and The Walnut Way Conservation which, as part of its comprehensive approach to local economic development through education, operates multiple high production community gardens, have recently partnered with the Fondy Market. Together, these organizations are working to produce food while healing the rift between young people, their communities and misconceptions regarding the future of agriculture.

“This is not about somebody coming in from the suburbs and luring everybody into becoming a vegetarian,” says Kim. “We’re trying to get at [food] sustainability but, when I talk about that, I mean all three aspects of it: environmental, economic and cultural.”

A different kind of optimism

Farmer’s markets are spectacles and every city does it differently.

In Seattle, for example, in addition to purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables, open air markets are a good place for complete strangers to sort out who started drinking kombucha first and/or which chakras benefit most from having the Didgeridoo played over them—all while being while being serenaded by hit-or-miss tunes on a dulcimer.

Fondy Farmer’s Market mixes in some tunes also. In fact, they hit all of the familiar notes one might expect from a socially-conscious, eco-friendly organization—community, thinking local and sustainability are all part of the conversation. But it’s their let’s-make-this-taste-good approach and dogged commitment to implementing these buzzwords that make the market unique.

In November 2014, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor and founding director of the Center for Economic Development, Marc V. Levine, published Zipcode 53206: A Statistical Snapshot of Inner City Distress in Milwaukee: 2000-2012. The report’s findings—socio-economic census data illustrated with easy-to-understand bar graphs—were grim. Strictly according to the numbers, a decade-long attempt at social and economic revival of the neighborhood had failed on almost every front. “Unfortunately,” the report reads, “the trend lines in 53206 continue to point downward.” In other words, the report suggests that without major change in its economic development policies, the 53206 community is poised to disappoint the next academic analysis of its unemployment, poverty, housing and educational attainment metrics. 

While such studies are important, perhaps even anthropologically crucial, they tell us next to nothing about the actual people on which the statistics are based. Last July, in response to Levine’s findings, John Linnen and Michael Gosman came to the defense of the 53206 in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinal opinion piece. They wrote:

"It's certainly true that this ZIP code has challenges, and we take no issue with the study. But a statistical snapshot—by its very nature—can't measure how individuals in this area approach life. There are Milwaukeeans fighting for and believing in the potential of this difficult area—challenging the "snapshot" and offering an alternate narrative of opportunity and optimism." 

How an individual approaches life is hard to study or measure because it’s constantly changing. The need for food, however, remains a constant and there are people working to make an alternate, more sustainable narrative real. “It’s like any social issue,” says Young Kim, “once the wool has been pulled from your eyes, you can’t pull it back over them.”



John Collins is the editor of Rural America In These Times. He lives between Minneapolis and La Pointe, Wisconsin, a village on Madeline Island in Lake Superior.

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