VGI Food Leader Interviews: Tammy Koz

by Mason Jarecki-Nimmo
Awesome Volunteer

Personally, I am very curious to learn more about the Food Leader Certificate Program, and what a better way than to interview the program alumni? What are they doing now, how did they hear about the program? It was certainly my pleasure to have sat down with Food Leader and community activist Tammy Koz a hear what she had to say about the program.

“I know I’ve got a strange time line of events that led me to the Food Leader Program. My husband and I attended a potluck dinner at the Urban Ecology Center, and that’s where I met Gretchen.”

Gretchen Mead is the founder and now the Executive Director of VGI. “So that’s how I found out about Victory Garden Initiative, and how they were giving away all these orchards in the Fruity Nutty Contest.”

Each year Victory Garden Initiative awards five neighborhoods with up to 30 fruit and nut trees during the Fruity Nutty Five Contest. The winners are announced at the Fruity Nutty Affair, this year Saturday, February 28th.FruityNuttyAffair02

In 2013 Tammy began creating an application for the Fruity Nutty Five at the same time she started classes for the Food Leader Certificate Program. She used the contest to fulfill a community project requirement of the FLCP.

“At first I wanted to go into a neighborhood in need and do all these things, but then I got pregnant. So that wasn’t really possible and we turned to our neighborhood. My husband and I went around knocking on doors, during this time of year! And we could tell at first we were getting the reaction, ‘What are you doing?’ People thought we were weird.”

Tammy and her husband got 7 immediate neighbors on board, but the Fruity Nutty application required 10. “So then we looked at the park [Tippecanoe Park] and thought, ‘Well, that’s a neighbor.’ And then we looked at the Clement Ave School, ‘That’s a neighbor.'” Seven neighbors, the park, the school, and their own home made 10.

“We met with neighbors, and the Alderman, the county parks. It really produced some great questions, like if someone moved away it would be kind of awkward for new neighbors when people walk into their yard and pick fruit. One person was afraid for their child’s nut allergy and didn’t want nut trees in their yard just to be safe. So we thought, ‘Why don’t we plant in the park?'”

Tammy’s application was announced a winner at the Fruity Nutty Affair in February. “In April we had a planting day. It was amazing, I mean, neighbors brought rakes and wheel-barrels, the Brewers sausages were there, we had potato sack races. Before [starting the Fruity Nutty application] my husband and I had been aSAMSUNGt our house for 3 years. We didn’t know a lot of neighbors. We’d walk in the park and say hi to people. But now I can’t walk without getting into one or two long conversations.”

Tammy seems to have smashed any doubts that her neighborhood was one in need. Next I asked what she took away from the FLCP classes and retreats.

“The classes gave me important skills I needed to build simple things. Simple things like how to rejuvenate soil, what to do/what not to do when composting. The retreats were amazing, really a transformative piece of the program for me. They brought out discussions and debriefs, trying to be as open as possible. One discussion was about technology, whether it brings people together or not. And it was really heated, some people really stood up for technology.”

“Jessy Servi was an amazing facilitator. She helped me gain the skills and confidence to get through tough situations. I needed that experience to move forward with my life, to move forward from being depressed about the state of the world.”

Both Tammy and her husband had previously lived and worked in Alaska. They hadn’t gone together, but both discovered a break from infrastructure and a food system that they didn’t entirely want to be a part of. She summed it up in one painfully targeted question, “Have you ever been somewhere beautiful and come back to Milwaukee?” That path is not uncommon for passionate urban foodies. To break from an urban environment, come closer to the Earth by living in a cabin without running water or electricity, or maybe a lesser extreme, and then return to city life.

In fact, Tammy worked for the City of Milwaukee after returning from Alaska. She held a position as the Foreclosure Program Coordinator in the Department of Neighborhood Services. She told me about some of the bureaucratic frustrations of the position, and the lack of interest from the banks to fix the foreclosure crisis. In 2012 Mayor Barrett invited proposals for Bloomberg’s Mayor Challenge, which awards cities seeking to solve common urban challenges. As Tammy described it, “It was a call to action for Milwaukee to solve the foreclosure crisis.” She proposed to do something with gardens in vacant lots, but was beat out by Gretchen Mead for a similar project that spiraled into the HOME GR/OWN Milwaukee Initiative.

Tammy’s transformation from before to after the FLCP was the confidence to pursue a career that lets her exercise her ideals. She left the stable income and her job at the City and returned to school for a teaching degree. “VGI empowered me to contribute much more to society than before. Even as a teacher, I feel I’ll be a better teacher because of this program, whereas before I would have been going through the motions of what a teacher does. VGI inspired me to be my highest self.”

Tammy has a firm ambition to pursue a teaching position that allows her to practice creativity with agriculture. She is currently working towards a Master of Arts in Inclusive Ed at Cardinal Stritch.

Find out more about the Food Leader Certificate Program  http://victorygardeninitiative.org/FoodLeader

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