Editor’s note: This article is one of an occasional series profiling the 15 finalists for the Milwaukee Awards for Neighborhood Development Innovation (MANDIs). Gretchen Mead is a finalist for the Northern Trust Navigator Award, which recognizes an individual for leadership and collaboration.
Gretchen Mead’s dedication to food activism began in her front yard, with a single garden plot.
“The core niche of what I do is about home, growing your own food in your own home and giving your children the nourishment they need for their brains and bodies,” said Mead.
Since 2008, that single plot has blossomed into the Victory Garden Initiative (VGI), a thriving community of staff and volunteers committed to helping Milwaukee residents grow their own food and cook nutritious meals for their families.
Mead was a social worker in a child and adolescent medical psychiatry unit when the profound negative impact of poor eating habits became glaringly apparent to her. Her young patients, often diagnosed with serious mental health issues, typically consumed what Mead calls “SAD,” or the standard American diet, laden with processed foods and high amounts of carbohydrates, wheat and meat products.
“No one asks them, ‘What did you have for breakfast? Do you have regular sleep cycles?” said Mead.
These questions emanate from Mead’s personal experiences with food and health. Raised on a farm in northern Illinois, the natural world was her “best teacher and playmate,” a place of solace, recreation and healing. Her mother, a farmer, filled their home with food she produced herself.
After moving to Milwaukee as an adult, Mead noticed an unwelcome change in her body, a sluggishness that was hard to pin down.
“I realized how [poor eating] was controlling my ability to be the person I wanted to be,” Mead said. “I cleansed my diet and was able to be happy and healthy and well again.”
These revelations ignited Mead’s desire to strengthen Milwaukee communities through the power of food. Nearly 18 percent of Milwaukee County residents were designated “food insecure,” or struggling to avoid hunger, in 2014.
“If you can feed yourself you are, in a fundamental way, much more of a free person,” said VGI volunteer Dale Skaggs. He recalled his first encounter with Mead at a conference held by Growing Power in 2009, and a lesson she shared about how leadership is a dance.
“She talked about how leaders need to understand that the second person to get up and dance is just as important as the first because it validates the first, and then the third, and pretty soon you’ve got the whole community dancing.”
Since its founding, VGI has facilitated the creation of 3,000 gardens, as well as a 1.5 acre farm in the Harambee neighborhood. The program also provides educational opportunities for children and adults, encouraging residents to learn about the growing process and how best to feed themselves and their families.
Mead’s favorite VGI event is the annual Fruity Nutty 5 Orchard Contest, a competition where groups of neighbors can apply to win a community orchard. Each of the five winning neighborhoods receives up to 30 fruit- and nut-producing trees that must be planted within a four-block radius. So far, VGI has awarded 28 Fruity Nutty orchards in Milwaukee.
An effect of the contest is that “someone in the community perks up, starts knocking on doors, becomes a de facto community organizer and begins introducing him or herself to neighbors,” said Mead. “What they find is they didn’t know there were 10 other people in their community who care about food, but now these people are talking to each other and leaders emerge.”
Previously known as Concordia Gardens, the Victory Garden Urban Farm is close to Mead’s heart as well. Located at 220 E. Concordia Ave., the farm offers programming ranging from community composting and rainwater harvest workshops to food pantry partnerships, volunteer and community service opportunities, and a pay-what-you-can fruit and vegetable Community U-Pick Garden. The urban farm is also home to YEP!, VGI’s youth education program, which provides workshops and internships for young people eager to get their hands dirty.
North side resident Joscelyn King, 11, worked as a youth farm intern last summer, and according to her mother, Jacqueline King, she can’t wait to return this coming summer.
“She had her own garden box and she cultivated her own seeds, picking the weeds every week and watching it grow,” she said. “[Joscelyn] picked up some really good eating habits. She wanted to learn to cook leeks, how to use the kale from the garden. We took home a lot of cucumbers, a lot of tomatoes, a lot of baby spinach. It was a great experience overall.”
Former VGI staff member Jazz Glastra praised Mead’s commitment to community partnerships as a means of spreading the word about healthy food.
“She understands that real change cannot be achieved by one person or even one organization,” said Glastra. “Partnerships are important and Gretchen works with as many people as she can.”
For all the joyful chaos of contests and raised bed-building blitzes, what fundamentally drives Mead is a desire for all people, young and old, to reap the physical, emotional and spiritual benefits of eating nutritious food.
“We eat not because it’s gratifying or tastes good on your tongue, but because it’s good for your body.”