Rest Assured Milwaukee, We Are Growing

Hello Friends,

Many of you heard the news that after decades of painting a powerful vision of a sustainable, community-based food system, Growing Power has closed its doors leaving behind an incredible legacy and several projects around town that will need either support or transitioning. Recently, I sat in front of the Milwaukee County Board’s Park and Rec Committee to finalize a resolution that Victory Garden Initiative will help with the next iteration of one of these projects, the Oak Creek Parkway Orchard, an 8-acre parcel of land that has been dedicated to orchard space and was formerly managed by Growing Power. While at the meeting, one county board member asked, “Is the recent loss of Growing Power an indication that Urban Agriculture isn’t going to keep the promises that it made to the city as an economically viable effort?” The room sat nervously for a moment while I explained that from our end, things are going strong. We are a robust organization with a strong board, successful programs, and careful management of our finances.

What I didn’t get a chance to say is that the well-intended county board member was asking the wrong question and therefore, I gave him the wrong answer. After the loss of Sweetwater Organics, and now Growing Power, perhaps we can draw some conclusions that aquaponics has so far not proven to be an economic force, however, this is a limited view of success. I can’t help but wonder when it became common place to see projects as a success only if they come with an economic benefit.

Looking at Urban Agriculture from a different lens one would easily conclude that urban agriculture is thriving, pumping(?), and shifting on all levels, from grassroots groups to institutional partnerships, to corporate programming. While Growing Power quiets, Green Vets has taken  its own direction with Growing Power, according to a recent Journal Sentinel article. Meanwhile, there is much buzz about Venice Williams’, director of Alice’s Garden announcement that she is leaving the church that houses the Body and Soul Healing Center and renovating a new healing center. Simultaneously, as many as a dozen young farmers are launching small independent efforts around town, at the large gardens at 6th and Howard, in Riverwest, and in partnership with the UW Extension. The Fondy Food Market is working with the city and other partners to expand its market space. The BeerLine Trail project has made Urban Agriculture a major component of its strategic plan. Even mega-nonprofits that do emergency food relief, such as Feeding America are now claiming that urban agriculture is part of their strategic plan for feeding our community.  The TIME for Urban Agriculture is only just beginning. Urban Agriculture HAS proven itself as a gateway for community action, spiritual healing, neighborhood redevelopment (think Walnut Way), re-imagining health, feeding people good food, and maintaining deep cultural traditions. All of these benefits derive from Urban Agriculture – AND, in spite of competing against the corporate industrial complex of the food system, Urban Agriculture still manages to make a small income in many cases.

Victory Garden Initiative is a great example of this. While earning a modest income to unnamedsupport our programs, we have been doing this work for nearly TEN years.

They say that time flies when you are having fun. Time also apparently flies when you are helping people grow their own food. We’ve spent ten years helping people in Milwaukee (and sometimes surrounding communities) grow their own food by developing programs, evaluating our work, writing grants, and bringing people together. Ten years of teaching people how to compost, start seedlings, and plant trees. Tens years of bringing people together with the purpose to implement their shared values of community, good food, sustainability, equity, and health, helping them find a route from their hearts to their actions. Ten years of moving away from the corporate industrial food system, to one that cares for this community. Ten years of transforming people’s yards and homes into edible, more ecologically vibrant urban landscapes.

All of this  started at my own kitchen table, which we outgrew in a few years, and moved to the Milwaukee Environmental Consortium (MEC). As serendipity would have it, just as MEC is in need of a new space, THE MOST PERFECT building across the street from The Farm has opened up and is ready for a new owner. The building is a former Pabst Pub, and includes a large public gathering space for learning and eating, an adequate kitchen space, storage space for equipment and preserved foods, and office and meeting space.  The building has all that we could ask for… plus character – hardwood floors, cream city brick, and even the original icebox in the basement.

Though we have been doing this work for ten years, our new building will give us the ability to move to a deeper level of impact, meaning, and connection. We will serve more neighbors, teach more people, and share more good food. Once in the building, we will have deeper partnerships with the neighboring schools and community organizations. We will launch a CSA program this spring and expand our partnership with local restaurants. Our workforce development projects will be expanded, offering more food processing and culinary programs. We will cook meals, directly from the garden, with and for our neighbors. We will invite you all to be our guests.

Join us on February 22nd, at the Fruity Nutty Affair, to see the official kick-off of our building project.

We can’t wait to share this moment with you all,

Click here to see images of the new building.

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Letter from the Board: Seeds of Growth

Dear VGI Community,


Ten years ago, our Executive Director Gretchen Mead had an idea. She planted it, like a tiny seed. Withhelp from others, like you who believed in this idea, she nurtured the seed that was the vision of Victory Garden Initiative and as the seed grows into something spectacular – so has VGI! I am sure like me, you too are very proud of the growth of our organization and also look to the future for with high expectations of the impact we can have.

It is our 10 YEAR ANNIVERSARY! We are celebrating all that we have done:

    • installing gardens/ bringing fresh food to people’s yards all over the city
    • planting trees and orchards,
    • training community food leaders,
    • launching community gardens,
    • engaging volunteers,
    • BLITZing (bringing together 100’s of volunteers to build garden beds)
    • building our farm, (providing programs for children and adults at The Farm in the Harambee neighborhood)
    • and, teaching children and adults to grow their own food.


None of these endeavors could’ve been possible without you. So this year and always, we also celebrate you. You helped us plant seeds. You helped our gardens grow. You helped our staff excel and our volunteers grow personally. You helped countless neighbors, children and community members. On behalf of everyone at Victory Garden Initiative, we THANK YOU!

On behalf of the VGI Board of Directors, we are deeply grateful for your generosity and continued belief in the impact we make in our community. Your impact will continue into 2018 and beyond. There are exciting things on our horizon. As we continue our current programs, we are exploring new adventures like growing our educational programs at The Farm and creating our very own CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program.

Please come to our annual fundraiser, The Fruity Nutty Affair on February 22nd! It is always a fantastic event with amazing food from the best local restaurants, music, silent auction and all the proceeds go to VGI…..what a fun way to give to Victory Garden Initiative.

Best regards,

Susie Ralston, Chairwoman of the Board, Victory Garden Initiative

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Preparing for Next Year


Today it hit.  Winter is finally here and the growing season has come to an end.  Not even the spinach likes it this cold. For the next few months, our farming activities will mostly subside,  except those that prepare us for next season.

20992892_10155641658269451_5738995368619896517_nBut, for the VGI team, there is no decrease in activities.  We are planning and preparing for next year’s programs, events, and successes. This preparation includes funding our activities. Much like we are banking up on compost at the farm for next season, we need to bank up on financial resources right now for next season. We need the financial resources that it takes to teach people how to grow food, give families gardens, offer deeply discounted vegetables to our neighbors, and train others to lead their own version of grassroots change.

shovel-squad-blitz-2017_34206791023_oWe need you to support this preparation.  While economic disparity increases in our country, the social issues that our community is vulnerable to, exacerbate.  We can’t let up. We must continue to support grassroots efforts that change the over-corporatized food system from the ground up.  Help us remove the Milwaukee’s food system from the speculative Wall Street economy by buying local everything, and supporting LOCAL food production. Right here in our own city.

Next year we have plans to launch a CSA farm and to expand the micro-local restaurant sales.  Help us get over the financial hump so we can make it all work.

We are counting on YOUR perseverance, every single one of you, to ensure that the Victory Garden Urban Farm can continue to do its good work in Milwaukee.

Consider giving generously.  We need you.



P.S. Wisconsin Foodie and Edible Milwaukee are offering a FREE subscription to anyone who donates to VGI.


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Calling All Future Food Leaders

2018 Food Leader Certificate Program Registration Now Open

The Food Leader Certificate Program is a unique and exciting intensive retreat program that trains up the next food leader. We are thrilled to have Erica Wolf join us again this year to share her vast knowledge of Community Organizing. We are also welcoming back Sean Laessig, Chief Mission Integration Officer from Cardinal Stritch University to inspire us to be Servant Leaders.

Delaney 2This unique experience includes three-weekend retreats that provide learning in the areas of Food system realities, team leadership, project management, connection through storytelling, gardening tips, and much more. Connect with fellow food leaders – plan your very own food system project – grow as a leader.

Hosted at the beautiful Wellspring Education Center and Organic Farm, located in West Bend, the vibrant setting offers the space to revitalize, reconnect, and inspire.

The 2018 Food Leader Certificate Program registration is now open. Come join this exciting and unique experience. The program is open to high school and adults alike.

For more information, click here

What are the past food leaders saying:

Grow Your Own Food, Abram Games, 1942, IWM PST 2893

The most valuable thing I learned in VGI’s Food Leader Certificate Program is that the support is there to be the change you want to see. The whole of us is more(stronger) than the sum of our parts. ~Colleen Patterson 

I absolutely loved connecting with like-minded, passionate individuals that inspired me to do better in my own life. As a new member of the Green Bay Area, I found a small community that welcomed me with open arms. ~Alex Smith

My favorite thing about the Food Leader program is the retreats and the new family you gain. After three retreat weekends together, I felt surrounded with love and support from my new community of food leader family members from all over the state. During the retreats, I felt energized by our shared passions and the progress each of us was making on our community projects. I know I’ve made some lifelong connections and sometimes you never know where those sparks will take you or how they will change your life. ~Mary Joy Hickey

Delaney 3Read other food leaders stories:

 Featured Food Leader- Bradley Seibel

Featured Food Leader- Delaney Hutchinson

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A Full Circle

During this year’s Victory Garden Initiative BLITZ, many garden stories touched our hearts. This particular story emboldens the importance of why we do what we do and reminds us of the power of people coming together, transcending all borders, to create a sovereign food system that directly serves the people in our community.

It began with a generous donor who sponsored the BLITZ gardens for refugee families in our community. A musician by profession, the donor said he was touched by the conversation with a refugee at a recent performance and he wanted to do something for the refugees in our community. Refugees face the challenges of having to completely readapt to their new host city, which includes where they will find their food from and how they will afford their food. What better solution than their own backyard and for free?

IMG_1725We then reached out to community partners Sheila Badwan and Kai Gardner Mishlove. Sheila advocates for and works with several refugee families, and connected us with families looking to grow their own food. Kai is co-founder of grassroots projects: Open Arms MKE and Team Refugee and has over 25 years of experience in social services working with vulnerable communities. She enjoys mobilizing community support to welcome refugee families in MKE. Over the last 3 years, Kai has assisted several refugee families with their acclimation in the US. She acts as a cultural mentor through her community volunteer work with various organizations including SEA Literacy MKE and the Aurora Walkers Point Community Clinic. She celebrates holidays with families, assists in their children’s education and assists with all the day to day necessary (and fun) activities that you would do with your family and close friends.

“Every activity and workshop that I’ve attended at Victory Garden Initiative has been awe-inspiring and confirmation of the positive aspects and potential of the community that exists in Milwaukee.  Victory Garden Initiative is definitely a Milwaukee gem.” -Kai Gardner-Mishlove

Through Kai, we were introduced to a family from the East African country of Eritrea among few other refugees. The 3 adult and 5 child family arrived in the United States in November 2016.


Bun brewing with Kai (on right)

On a beautiful May afternoon in the late-Spring of 2017, our team of marvelous volunteers set out to install the gardens for the families who benefitted from this generous donation. They spent the day building garden beds, shoveling, moving dirt, pounding yard signs, and then capped it off by sipping freshly brewed “bun” made by the family.  Traditional coffee made from an elaborate ceremonial home roasting and brewing process. Kai is a big fan of Bun/Buna now.

The family takes pleasure in the garden for its aesthetic appeal and bountiful fresh harvests. Their garden favorites thus far are the variety of lettuces, tomatoes, and okra. Like many immigrants, the act of growing food connects these refugees to their home. It brings back many fond memories they made sharing meals with their family and friends that are left behind. A true sense of community can only be experienced when many agents come together to make it a better place. That is one of the many reasons why BLITZ has been a backbone of our mission.

The Great Milwaukee Victory Garden BLITZ is the NATION’S LARGEST GARDEN-BUILDING EVENT! Each year, over 300 Victory Garden Initiative volunteers install hundreds of raised bed gardens in backyards, front yards, schools, community centers, and places of worship – just about anywhere you can imagine! Gardens can be donated for to either build a garden for your backyard or gardens can be gifted to someone else’s backyard. So far, we’ve built over 4,000 gardens in the Milwaukee area since the program’s inception! To buy a BLITZ garden for a family in need, visit


Special thanks to Kai-Gardner Mishlove, Kevin vieau and all the BLITZ volunteer for this story!


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The Energy-Vortex


I traveled to Sedona, Arizona a couple years ago, and made it my personal quest to understand the energy vortexes that are claimed to be present there. I mosied around at the local rock shop where people were purchasing an array of sparkling crystals that they were planning to ‘charge’ at the vortexes.

“Can you tell me what kind of energy is charging the crystals?”, I asked.

sedona“Its energy from the earth’s force.” someone told me. 

“Where does the energy come from?”, I asked someone else.

“It’s the energy of all things.”, a young man told me.

“Why is the energy here?” I asked a 60-something lady.

“Some places have more energy than others, and this place seems to have more energy every time I come here. It’s healing.”

Ever since, I have wondered, if Sedona does indeed have some kind of alluring energetic qualities, that have in essence created the space. I did get a special feeling there, that I ponder even to this day.

Eight years ago, we were approached by Milwaukee Urban Gardens because the City of Milwaukee was hopeful that the 1.5-acre lot at 220 E. Concordia could be used as an urban agriculture site. When I walked onto this lot, it was a crisp day in the very early spring.  The sun was shining brightly on the entire lot and I was immediately enchanted. We imagined the entire lot lush with a harvestable forest, vines hanging with plump tomatoes, birds and butterflies fluttering about.  We imagined people gathering there to grow food together, building community and living a more sustainable, nutritious life.

From that time, a handful of people were compelled to transform this land from an abandoned tax foreclosed lot to the lush urban farm that it is today. And this lush farm, now called the Victory Garden Urban Farm, drew in more people, more activity, and seemingly more energy.


Goose Island Brunch at the farm

Apparently, this piece of land has affected many others in the same way.  I now give 2 or more tours per week at the farm.  The neighbors come in to harvest fresh vegetables; students from area schools receive specialized, hands-on education programs about growing and eating good food; and our farmer sends produce to micro-local restaurants customers.


A couple years ago, the farm, drew a retired Belgian engineer, who brought with him dozens of edible perennials, and more fortitude than any 7 college interns advancing the farm even further.

Last year, someone planned a surprise marriage proposal at the farm.  Just last week, The Goose Island Brew Company held the most charming brunch at the farm. I watched nearly 100 people who had never been there before, look around, eyes wide, in awe of the oasis before them.  The Farm seems to be buzzing with more energy than ever.

HarambeeRecently, as I was perusing real estate websites, I noticed the obvious donut shape around The Farm, suggesting that there are no houses immediately surrounding that farm that are either for sale or foreclosed. Unusual in this area.  A sign perhaps, of this energy’s allure, bringing residents to live, work and play by the farm.  

This question still wiggles around in my mind, however – Did the people bring the earth’s energy to this site or did the earth’s energy bring the people?…. Or even more, is there a difference?


Come see us and get the vibe. I dunno, bring your crystals.  Maybe it’s really a thing. Can’t hurt to give it a try.



Victory Garden Urban Farm

Victory Garden Urban Farm as it looks today!                                                             Photo Courtesy: Lance Massey





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A Path To The Future

Dear Friend,

There is a Buddhist quote that lives in my mind, and pops forth every once in awhile at just the right moments: “If you are facing the right direction, all you need to do is keep on walking.”

This is precisely how it feels at Victory Garden Initiative right now – that we have been facing the right direction – and it’s all up to us to keep on walking toward a community-based, sustainable, healthy, and socially just food system for all people in Milwaukee and beyond.

We walk by delivering high-quality education programs, city-wide events, and by transitioning unused urban land into edible landscapes that build community, produce healthy food, and foster microlocal economies.

AA stats (1)As we approach 2018, we are filled with excitement and anticipation for what lies ahead. Not only will we execute the 10th Annual Victory Garden BLITZ, during which we will surpass a total of 4,000 urban gardens built in the Milwaukee area, we will also usher in our 8th year of transforming an abandoned urban lot into a food-producing education farm of jaw-dropping beauty. During our summer Youth Education Program (YEP!), we will watch the children find their love for eating vegetables in just a few short months, forever changing the course of their lives. And as our Food Leader Certification Program sends our mission spiraling outward to people across the state of Wisconsin, I know that we are on the right path.

AA art 3

Victory Garden Urban Farm


In the coming year, we will put a renewed focus on growing The Victory Garden Urban Farm. The agriculture sector in Wisconsin is the largest of all sectors, totaling 8 BILLION dollars worth of revenue, while our small-scale farmers are aging out of the industry, leaving an ever-widening gap of expertise. With your help, we will use The Farm as an opportunity to ensure that urban Milwaukeeans can conceive of farming as a rewarding and sustainable career.

Urban agriculture must be a consistent presence in the lives of urban dwellers if we are to walk toward the advancement of a food system that feeds all people healthy sustainably grown food and fosters OUR local economy, OUR people, and OUR ecosystem.

But we do not, and cannot do this work alone. We need each and every one of you to walk with us, putting your dollars and your time where your heart already lives. Every gift you give to the Victory Garden Initiative is a step in the right direction, and we are so grateful for your support. Please continue to walk with us by making your gift to VGI today.  




AA art 4

What our program participants say


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Keep it simple — what’s in your meal?

The seed of introduction:

“The interesting thing I learned was that if you’re really concerned about your health, the best decisions for your health turn out to be the best decisions for the farm and the best decisions for the environment – and that there is no contradiction there.”

~Michael Pollan


Celebrated author Michael Pollan once said that if food came from a plant, eat it and if it was made in a plant, do not. Although humorous, this phrase sums up the current state of our food industry. Pollan’s advice actually has widespread implications and examines the very question: What is food? A strong argument could be made that even though processed foods may begin as whole food, it is altered in such as way that the end results does not even resemble food.

Advances in science have allowed the food industry to evolve – making food easier and cheaper to grow and with more desirable characteristics in terms of shelf life and freshness. These advances sometimes cost you as well. Consider the average cracker on the market today. It has an average of eight or more ingredients, several of which are additives for taste, color or shelf life. Additionally, the cracker is most likely made with

ingredientsrefined non-whole grains and will cause a rapid rise in blood sugar and insulin followed by a rapid fall. This rise and fall may cause you to be hungry again soon and overall less satisfied. Is also may contribute to inflammation if foods such as the cracker are typical in your diet.

Finally, that cracker may be loaded with saturated fats, trans fats (hydrogenated oil) and a whopping amount of sodium. All of these put you at risk for heart disease, stroke, and hypertension. Think about it, that’s just your cracker – what else are you eating throughout the day that has numerous ingredients, many of which you don’t have a clue even what they are?

~Excerpt from What is Food and Where is it Coming From; Menu for the Future, Page 66.

Let the conversation germinate and grow:

Do you currently use labels to make food purchasing decisions? Is the labeling understandable? How might it be improved?

Think about your health. What might changing your diet do to improve it?

Do you ask questions at the store about your food’s origin? How can you find out more about where your food comes from?

Practical Exercise:

Find out more about food labels and what they mean at

For one week, list everything you eat. Notice how much fresh food you eat and how much prepared food you eat. Think about Michael Pollan’s statement – if food comes from a plant eat it, and if it comes from a plant, do not. What changes might you make and how would that affect your health?

Are you still gardening? If so, what are your planting? If not, are you thinking about gardening next year? What would you want to plant?

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Start Them Young!

By Roxanne Hanna

With the conclusion of the intern program mid-August, we have been hosting more field trips lately. Even though we are more limited in the amount of depth we can get into (because we only have one day together) I have enjoyed every field trip we’ve had so much. Many of the children have surprised me with their total enthusiasm and lack of fear with the bees. There have been times when we have given field trip groups an entire run-down of the bee hives, showing them the big-eyed appearance of the drones, the pollen sacks on the legs of the returning worker bees, and even passed around a fresh honeycomb to taste. Even when someone would get stung, which only happened twice, they were very calm and able to receive my lesson on using plantain as a poultice for the stings. To my own amazement, both children who used this method reported no pain and reduced swelling in less than a minute after applying!


A glimpse of recent Field Trips at The Farm!

They also enjoy tasting fresh herbs that you can’t even find in a store, like the sweet anise hyssop, or the pungent nasturtium, or the crunchy succulent purslane. I can’t help but recall a farm field trip that I experienced in school while working with them. It always stands out as a clear and vivid memory, more so than most others I have of that time. Sometimes I wonder if that field trip may have impacted me in ways that I am unaware, and maybe it was those first tactile experiences that I accessed when I was drawn farming as my passion in adulthood. One thing I am reminded of each and every time we host children at the farm is that connection with soil, plants, and animals is so absolutely important for young people.

They bloom with the new tastes and smells and feels, they break down barriers that keep them out of the soil, and they get to experience the magic of a random butterfly landing on them, or a worm they can hold, or a caterpillar they found. There can’t be the too much hands-on experience of nature to cultivate a lifelong loving relationship with the wild. So let’s get them started young!

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Feed The World

The seed of introduction:

“Since our break with nature came with agriculture, it seems fitting that the healing of culture begins with agriculture, fitting that agriculture takes the lead.”

~Wes Jackson

Sooner or later the question comes up, whether it is between two friends sharing a pot of stew made from local grass fed beef and their garden harvest livestock farmers gathered on a pasture walk, neighbors working together to tend a flock of backyard chickens, or organic vegetable producers discussing yields at a conference.

“But can we feed the world this way?”

Feed The World

75 or 100 years ago, such a question would never have entered your dialogue. To ask a  local farmer or homesteader how his or her production methods were going to feed the world would have been absurd. The local producer’s job was to support the family, the community, and his/her bioregion – not the world.

Following World War II, with the onset of the “Green Revolution”, feeding the world became a national mantra.

The question remains: Can the local, sustainable food movement in the United States feed the world? The answer: No. Nor can the industrial agriculture paradigm. No one can feed the world. One country cannot do it, nor can any specific model of production. The earth must be allowed to reclaim its natural productivity. That’s why we need local and regional food systems, designed to work harmoniously with local ecosystems. While certain ecological lessons may apply, it would be absurd to think what works for us in upstate New York for producing food is going to necessarily work in Africa. There is no such thing as a universally applicable production practice nor a universally acceptable diet.

That is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about global starvation. But if enabling everybody to have access to good nutritious food is really our goal, we need to look deeper than crop yields and feed conversion ratios. In addition to the complicated politics involved, we need to examine our individual actions?

How are your daily habits impacting humanity’s access to a nutritious food supply? Our daily sustenance should not require that other people in the world go without nourishment. Our daily sustenance should not demand excessive fossil fuels for growing, processing and transporting the food to our tables. Beyond that, our consumption habits ideally should not be requiring people in foreign lands to destroy their own access to clean water and fertile soil for the sake of dyeing our clothing, building our electronics, or making our children’s toys.

Untitled design (3)‘Feed the world’ starts with individual accountability. It needs to be considered in every home, in every business. But the question must be reframed. Rather than asking farmers if the methods they use can feed the world, we need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “Do my choices help enable the world to feed itself?” If the answer is no, then it is time to make different choices.”

~Excerpt from Instead of Trying to Feed the World, Let’s Help It feed Itself by Shannon Hayes; Menu for the Future, Page 43.

Let the conversation germinate and grow:

  • What choices do you make that impact the ability for the world to feed itself?
  • What can you do today that will enable the world to feed itself?

Practical Exercise:

  • Find out what kind of farm your food comes from: agribusiness, family farm, industrial organic, etc.
  • Find out where your food is sourced – how far did it travel.
  • Create a team and join the Northwest Earth Institute’s 2017 EcoChallenge

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