How One Gardener is Changing Milwaukee’s Landscape | Midwest Living
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How One Gardener is Changing Milwaukee’s Landscape

Like the WWII movement of the same name, Gretchen Mead’s Victory Garden Initiative fights for a cause; her battle is the poor diet of people living in poverty. She has rallied hundreds of volunteers to build 2,500 vegetable beds in low-income Milwaukee neighborhoods during seven annual blitzes. Now she wants to help other towns to do the same. We chatted with Gretchen about the roots of her movement and how her vision continues to grow.

How did the Victory Garden Initiative get started?

I grew up in the country. We grew a lot of our own food and lived off the land. That was just our way of life. When I moved to the city to get my master's in social work, I still felt a need to grow food, even though there wasn’t a lot of space. I started growing food in my front yard, recognizing how important it was for my own wellness. I also started a career as a social worker and couldn’t help but notice the horrible diet people in poverty had access to. There was a missing conversation in urban environments about the benefits of growing your own food, so I organized an event called the Great Milwaukee Victory Garden Blitz. It was an effort to create gardens for a whole bunch of people. We built about 40 gardens during our first blitz and that was seven years ago. Since then, we’ve built around 2,500 gardens in the Milwaukee area.

How does the annual blitz work?

We have between 300 and 400 volunteers that build the gardens. It takes us two weeks to build 500 4x8-foot raised gardens. We will subsidize half the cost ($160 last year), but we never give gardens away, since people take more ownership of their garden if they pitch in. We also add fresh soil to each garden. Most of the soil in an urban setting is contaminated or has been scraped up and moved. Providing good soil is really the first step for helping people grow their own food. That first year—even if you aren’t a seasoned gardener—you are typically going to have some really great success because the soil is so rich.

Your slogan is “Move grass. Grow food.” What’s wrong with grass?

I loathe grass because it’s become more of a symbol than a function. There was a time when having a mowed lawn was a symbol of wealth or a sophisticated lifestyle, which is all good and fine. But I am very much a realist. We just don’t need all that grass. We need biodiversity. We need access to better food.  We need a reason to go into our front yard and meet our neighbors. I feel like grass is a trend that we are surpassing.

Are there parallels between your Victory Garden Initiative and the WWII movement of the same name?

The era of the Victory Garden movement was a time of great unity in our country. People were so empowered and unified by growing their own food to support the war effort. We are fighting for something by growing our own food. But it is a kind of fighting that is very positive and forward thinking.

What kind of success are you seeing?

We’ve talked with numerous people over the years who say they were in a dark place before our gardens gave them some sense of purpose and independence. Last year, we had a great interview with a woman who had a series of tragic events occur in her life. But then she started spending time in the soil of one of our gardens. Pretty soon, she was growing food in her front yard and handing extra vegetables to people headed to the food pantry up the street. Getting outside, meeting neighbors, it just transforms people in ways they don’t expect.

Learn more about Gretchen and the Victory Garden Initiative in our March/April issue (on newsstands now) or at victorygardeninitiative.org.

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