Advocates Hope to Build Support for Access to Local, Healthy Food

Aug 26, 2014

Credit S Bence

With the tag line of “Wisconsin’s Right To Real Food”, leaders will speak tonight at Turner Hall.

The theme of food freedom is meant to cultivate a broader community conversation around supporting small regional farmers.That includes Vernon Hershberger, the Wisconsin dairy farmer who has been at the center of a contentious raw milk debate.

Hershberger is slated to speak, as well as Gretchen Mead.

She’s founder of the Victory Garden Initiative in Milwaukee and has become a major voice in the local food conversation, and what she hopes cultivates food sovereignty.

“The history of the term food sovereignty is pretty vast, but it comes from, I believe, a Brazilian workers movement called Via Campesina and it’s really started with a farmer’s revolution of connecting to the land again, demanding access to land – even squatting on land and just taking it back,” Mead says.

She says the movement has spread around the globe.

“It’s become broader to include things like having choice about what you eat, how you spend your money; because there’s the right to grow your own food in some countries, which is really important; but in this country it’s really the right to know what’s in your food, to purchase the foods that you want to purchase, to eat the foods that your want to purchase,” Mead says.

She grew up in the country and moved, as an adult to Milwaukee.  Mead says she found herself in a personal food sovereignty quandary.

“I felt a stark disconnect from the land; I was sort of a ticking time bomb almost caged a little bit. I just needed to grow food. But I lived in Shorewood where everybody has a small yard. One day, I started growing food in my front yard because I couldn’t not do it anymore. In retrospect, that was sort of a food sovereignty issue,” Mead says.

Her passion for social justice, environmental sustainability and “a belief in basic foods that will would make us well rather than some other system outside of us measures in science and medicine and pharmaceuticals I guess” lead to the creation of the Victory Garden Initiative.

Over the last six years, Mead, a small staff and a growing number of volunteers have installed 2000 raised bed garden patches around the region. Mead says over that time, the conversation around both food and the environmental has expanded.

“When I first started doing this work, I was intimidated to tell certain people that I’m concerned that we are heading toward an ecological cliff; you couldn’t say that because it was too extreme. I was afraid to tell some people that I’m concerned about the extreme power in what we now call “the one percent”, the corporate entities of the world that have gotten so large and control so much,” Mead says.

Now she frequently is part of conversations in which both topics are at the forefront.

“They wouldn’t call themselves an activist or a food justice worker. They’re just every day mainstream people with jobs all over Milwaukee, who are saying, ‘wow! Something is not right with the system as a whole; something is getting increasingly out of balance,” Mead says.

She says the newly-formed Institute for Urban Agriculture and Nutrition is working to draw more people into discussion.

“Because the community is so involved, not just academics, people are saying things at these meetings about corporate power and how that relates to food and that’s really exciting to me; because that’s how we bring the food system back into balance; that’s how we assure that people have a voice in food sovereignty issues, that we have control over what we’re eating; that everybody has access to really great food,” Mead says.

The controversy around raw milk is a focal point of Tuesday’s gathering at Turner Hall in Milwaukee.

Mead believes the debate illustrates the need of good science coupled with the importance of the consumer’s choice.

“Raw milk has been villainized,” Mead says.

She adds, “the science is mixed about it – is it good for you, is it not? Of course, you can get sick from eating raw “anything” because there’s the potential of bacteria. But there is a good argument for drinking raw milk for what it does for your gut “flora and fauna’. To have that denied, simply because there’s not the right study to prove it yet, that’s food sovereignty issue and it’s not allowing people to have a choice over their own wellness and health,” Mead says.