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

John Collins

A transaction takes place at the Fondy Farmer's Market in Milwaukee.

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://​fondy​mar​ket​.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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