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Urban gardener hopes to turn foreclosures into farms

Milwaukee UU believes creating a 'harvestable city' will improve quality of life.
By Nicole Sweeney Etter
Spring 2013 2.15.13

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Gretchen Mead

Gretchen Mead, a member of First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, has spurred a ‘Victory Garden Blitz’ across the city. (Courtesy Gretchen Mead)

“This is a grassroots movement. Move grass. Grow food.”

That’s the motto of the Victory Garden Initiative, a nonprofit organization founded by Gretchen Mead, a former social worker who is a member of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee.

Thanks to Mead, hundreds of Milwaukeeans are rediscovering the joy of dirt under their fingernails. This year’s Victory Garden Blitz tapped the power of 300 volunteers (including many of Mead’s fellow UUs from FUSM) to install nearly 300 raised garden beds across Milwaukee. The Victory Garden Initiative also plants seeds in several other creative ways, ranging from the Fruity Nutty Campaign (to help develop “food forests” in the city) to urban permaculture courses and an LGBT Weed Dating event (like speed dating for gardeners). Yard by yard, Mead and her colleagues hope to turn everyone into a farmer.

“The big vision is really that we have a harvestable city where everyone has access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said. “The capacity to improve the quality of life for so many people lives in that realm, with that solution.”

Now Mead is poised to launch her most ambitious project yet. Earlier this fall she was chosen from 100 applicants to have her idea included—along with many other city-designed initiatives—in Milwaukee’s application to the national Bloomberg Mayors Challenge, which awards $1 million to $5 million to the best, boldest solutions to problems faced by cities across America.* Mead’s proposal, titled the Post-Industrial Urban Homestead Act, is to rededicate foreclosed properties to growing food and to give families the chance to become homesteaders—an innovative idea for a city plagued by approximately 6,000 empty lots and 3,000 empty homes.

“The idea is to pair foreclosed homes with empty urban land, and after someone farms the land for five years, the home becomes theirs,” Mead explained. “The prize money would go toward rehabbing those homes and the infrastructure for the farms so they wouldn't have to do this all by themselves.” Mead also envisions a legion of volunteers from high schools, colleges, and corporations to help support urban farmers.

Mead should know by the end of this year whether her idea makes it into the top 20, and the winners will be announced later in 2013. But even if her proposal doesn’t win the national competition, it’s likely that the city of Milwaukee will adopt at least parts of the plan, she said.

“The city has a mess on their hands, and they need a way to deal with it,” she said of the foreclosure crisis.

Mead’s passion for urban agriculture and environmental justice has its roots in her childhood in rural Illinois, where her family filled the dinner table with finds from local forests as well as the bounty of their garden.

“My parents weren’t necessarily deliberately reverent about food,” she said. “They just did it as a way of life. My mom grew up as a farmer and my dad was interested in hunting, and that was how we provided a sub-economy for our family.”

Later in life, Mead drifted from gardening and her “real food” roots and ate what she describes as the standard American diet for five years. She felt sick, lethargic, and depressed, and it wasn’t until she started working at an organic farm and gardening at home that she felt her life turn around. She found working with the earth healing.

“It answered a lot of questions for me . . . the meaning of life sorts of questions: Why are we here? Do I have to believe in a God? What if I don’t believe in a God? What are the values that I aspire to have? What are the ethics to live by? What does that even look like?” Mead said. “I think I had developed that in a very nondeliberate way as a child because of the way my family lived, but I never reflected on it until later on in life.”

When she first moved to Milwaukee a few years ago, she felt disconnected again. After a year and half without gardening, she became what she jokingly calls a “closet gardener,” sneaking tomato plants into a front yard that was surrounded by food-free, manicured lawns.

“I needed to figure out how to connect to the earth again here in the city,” she explained. “I was looking around and thinking, ‘Where’s the beauty in this?’ Yes, there was beauty with the night lights and the culture of the city and the diversity and the art and music scene and all of that, but it didn’t give me that same sense of peace that connecting to the natural world had always done, and growing food was a way for me to do that.”

When her suburb tried unsuccessfully to pass an ordinance preventing residents from growing food in their front yards, she became an outspoken critic. Soon she had given up her day job as a social worker to concentrate on the work of the Victory Garden Initiative.

These days, Mead’s vine-covered brick house is easy to pick out: Her small yard is filled with raised beds that overflow with tomatoes, kale, spinach, carrots, beans, asparagus, broccoli, onions, garlic, squash, cherries, blueberries, and more. “It’s the one that looks alive,” Mead said with a laugh.

Mead would love to see more produce grown at schools, in parks, and along boulevards. But she has seen how her own yard has inspired others, and that’s one reason why she’s convinced that urban homesteading could transform neighborhoods.

“People are actually owning it,” she said, “and that lends itself to longevity and neighborhood development.”

A version of this article appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of UU World (“Urban gardener hopes to turn foreclosures into farms,” pages 7–9). See sidebar for links to related resources.

Correction 12.3.12: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story did not reflect that Mead’s application was part of a larger application by the city of Milwaukee, and provided an incomplete name for the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

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