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Farming The Food System

Milwaukee is one of 20 finalists in a national challenge on addressing the broken food system. And, Shorewood's Gretchen Mead is a main contributor to the unique plan.

When other Shorewood moms were gathering pipe cleaners for the perfect spider costume, Gretchen Mead, the Executive Director of Victory Garden Initiative, was putting together an ingenious plan to answer Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett's Tournavation challenge.

This competition solicited ideas to combat the issue of the broken food system within the city.

"The lack of access to healthy foods can have profoundly negative effects on individuals’ health," she said.

The winning idea in Milwaukee came from Mead and the VGI, which she titled "PUHA, the Post-Industrial Homestead Act," which turns empty lots and foreclosed homes into community-based food system hubs. 

The solution in the application was to "find out how to ​leverage​ the land and property assets in foreclosure to create greater and more efficient access to healthy, locally-grown food for citizens in need of better food security."

And now, Milwaukee’s proposal, submitted by Barrett and now called “Home Gr/Own,” encompasses Mead's plan as its nucleus in the submission to the Bloomberg Foundation, which was just selected as a finalist in the top 20 out of 300 cities in the country, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Mary Louise Schumacher reports.

Barrett's competition was designed to cull ideas from Milwaukee in order to formulate an entry for the Bloomberg Challenge.

"The idea is to pair rehab-able homes with thousands of empty lots that are owned by the City of Milwaukee," Mead said. "Someone would be gifted the property and farm after receiving training through the PUHA, implemented by the City."

The plan is further described in this video by Radio Milwaukee.  

"Currently, the Department of City Development is doing some analysis - taking each block and finding potential homes and lots. On our end, we're looking at how to secure grant infrastructure for farm training and home ownership. The project allows for flexibility to partner with many organizations that offer expertise in different areas, like Habitat for Humanity on the training and management for rehabbing homes, while the farmer is farming the land," Mead explained.

"After five years of successful farming, the person would inherit the home and the land. By 'success' we mean that farm would be bringing vital fresh foods to the neighborhood and helping to solve the broken food problem."

"It's really an exciting project," said Mead. 

Mead herself is a successful victory garden farmer, and describes the impetus for the idea as coming from "just driving around the city, and seeing these places that would make magnificent farms in the heart of the city.

"When you realize there are (foreclosed) houses right there that could be rehabbed and house the farmer, puts all the resources right where they need to be to start solving these big problems." said Mead.  

Mead will be speaking next week with another researcher about the reduction of violence caused by green spaces as well, which will be followed by a "What's Next" discussion at Milwaukee's Urban Ecology Center. 

The manager of the Bloomberg Foundation, James Anderson, spoke about the 20 finalists.  

"Some cities thought creatively about how under-utilized assets and unaddressed needs can be tackled together (e.g., Milwaukee's approach to using foreclosed properties to address healthy food disparities)," Anderson said in an interview with Rahim Kanani, a Forbes reporter.

The finalists, including Milwaukee's team, the only group from Wisconsin, will submit refined proposals early in 2013. In addition to the $5 million winner, four runners up will get $1 million each. The winners will be announced in the second quarter of 2013. The Mayor’s Challenge is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, Bloomberg's Family Foundation.

All eyes will be on Milwaukee in the challenge as they seek to gain vital funding and build nutritional infrastructure in the urban areas of Milwaukee.

Absolutelyfabulous November 08, 2012 at 08:08 AM
So, basically someone gets a renovated house to live in for free and if they grow some vegetables on a plot of land next to it for 5 years then they are given the house as well as the land. What's going to stop someone from living in this house, which most likely will cost quite a bit of money to rehab , and give up on the farming and live free for 5 years and then move on? Are there any quotas for what & how much needs to be produced on an annual basis? Better yet, what's going to stop someone from gaming the system and farm for 5 years and once they are given a rehabilitated house for free, bail out on the farming since the house has been deeded to them free & clear. Additionally, so they have a newly renovated house to live in free for 5 years ie no mortgage payment, will they have to pay any property taxes during this time as well and at a newly assessed rate after all the renovations have been completed? If you click on the link for the Mary Schumacher article above, there is a photo of Mayor Barrett visiting on of the lots that is currently being used as a garden in the City of Milwaukee. Maybe 1/3 of the lot is actually plotted out for garden usage.
Absolutelyfabulous November 08, 2012 at 11:54 AM
Pt 2 Is there a limit on how much would be granted to any perspective homeowner to rehabilitate the house they are seeking to live in? Who will be doing the renovations and if done by a homeowner who's to ensure the monies received are actually put into the house @ true costs vs skimming into ones pocket? In the City of Milwaukee, a few ingenious developers are rehabbing homes @ a cost of $~250,000 per unit ie $500,000 for a duplex in neighborhoods where the houses are assessed @ ~35,000 via a "wonderful" tax credit gov't program. (link below) On top of that, many, if not most homeowners in these neighborhoods then receive monthly checks from the gov't. so the developer is ensured that they receive their monthly rent checks. So, in the story below, you have ~41 units being brought to market at a cost of over $7,000,000 in the poorest part of the City of Milwaukee. Garden Initiative is saying that there are "thousands" of vacant lots looking to be paired up with adjacent homes. What, if any, costs have been projected for a project of this nature/scope? City proposes sale of tax-foreclosed homes to Gorman & Co. http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/business/124509204.html Habitat For Humanity was mentioned as being a potential partner. Habitat is a great concept in itself. Though, the potential homeowner has to put in 100's of hours of labor in addition to assuming the mortgage when people get a home. This program just gives a house and additional lot away for free?
Sunrocket November 08, 2012 at 06:25 PM
Is there enough of a growing season in Wisconsin to really make this feasible? That's a lot of broccoli that needs to be grown. What happens in the winter? Hoop houses? Are people going to be trusted to get out there and weed, fertilize, water and harvest the crops? To make this work you would need ALOT of space and gardens. Not just a small home sized garden. This sounds like a nice idea and I hope it works but I have my doubts.
CowDung November 08, 2012 at 09:43 PM
If the land and houses aren't any use to the city, and people are willing to give it a try, I guess I don't see why not. I am pessimistic about how successful this would be though--the 'farms' don't seem large enough to provide enough income for the farmers to pay the property taxes (much less support a family), and they don't seem small enough to be an 'spare time' activity for those with a full time job...
Bob McBride November 08, 2012 at 10:04 PM
This might work real well in Denver right about now...
Absolutelyfabulous November 09, 2012 at 04:07 AM
Dung- They are looking to pair up foreclosed houses with adjacent vacant lots. My questions, among so many, would be with regard to the "grants" bestowed upon interested parties to get these foreclosed houses habitable/up to code. I can't begin to imagine what the condition of these properties are if they have been stripped of anything of value ie copper pipes/fixtures ripped out, walls torn open...Basically anything that could be resold or just destroyed by the previous homeowners because they lost their house. Let's not forget about the potential that these foreclosed houses were used by squatters/as potential drug labs. Basically, how much "free" monies/taxpayer assistance can a potential homeowner/farmer expect to be in line to receive to renovate a house/bring it up to code in addition to the home being free along with an adjacent vacant lot. There is so much incredible waste with these gov't programs it's sickening all in the name of the latest flavor of the day. What happens if someone suddenly becomes physically incapable of farming this land (legitimate or under false pretenses) after they have received this house and all the monies to renovate it? So many scenarios of unknowns and the room for abuse/lack of oversight/enforcement seems like it could be huge. I guess we'll see. Unfortunately, it is all too often after the fact and usually swept under the rug. Because when you're playing with other peoples money, it really doesn't count.
Bob McBride November 09, 2012 at 02:31 PM
The goal of this project, best I can determine, is to cultivate empty properties next to empty, foreclosed residential properties, for the purpose of spreading the cause of urban farming. Since it's not something taking off on it's own, it's going to require an enormous investment on the part of the governing bodies involved and other sources of assistance to get it off the ground. There's absolutely no way to determine if it will sustain itself, since it's impossible to predict the commitment of those who'd take advantage of the program. Getting a free house, with assistance rehabbing it in exchange for maintaining a vegetable garden adjacent to the property will, no-doubt, result in a lot of interested parties pursuing the opportunity. That, alone, can't be the criteria by which the program's success is determined, in the event it gets past the idea stage. There are currently other rehab projects going on in distressed parts of the city (in some cases, this is the 2nd or 3rd attempt in those same areas) where the outsides of the buildings are being rehabbed and the insides gutted of non-conforming attributes at taxpayer expense, and the properties, subsequently, being offered at bargain basement prices with the hopes that residents, not landlords, will buy the houses and complete the inside rehabbing. I understand the desire to clean up the neighborhoods and get the properties back on the productive tax role, but I really question the success rate of these projects.
Absolutelyfabulous November 09, 2012 at 03:00 PM
NY Times article Growing Everything but Gardeners http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/garden/urban-gardens-grow-everything-except-gardeners.html?partner=rss&emc=rss "Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whose sustainability initiative, PlaNYC, calls for city agencies to identify vacant parcels that may be reclaimed for urban agriculture..There is some evidence, in fact, that the bulk of New Yorkers do not have an unlimited appetite for growing their own kale. Official counts of New York gardens are fragmentary. But John Ameroso, the Johnny Appleseed of the New York community garden movement, suspects that the number of present-day gardens — around 800 — may be half what it was in the mid-1980s..This fact is no slight on the neighborhood, she emphasized. GreenThumb has a will and a way to revitalize these public spaces. As for actual financing — well, there’s a lot of compost to go around. GreenThumb runs on a budget of $600,000 to $800,000 a year, Ms. Stone said, mostly with federal Community Development Block Grants designated for poorer neighborhoods. From this pool, a typical garden receives about $600 in support and materials. The entire GreenThumb staff, including seasonal employees, numbers 15 to 20 people. " In Milwaukee they are trying to get people to garden by giving them a rehabilitated house to live in free for 5 years and then turn it over for growing some vegetables? What kinds of costs are involved, let alone w/ 1000's of vacant lots available?

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