All week, WUWM has been exploring the strength of Wisconsin’s food industry, including its economic impact here in the southeast.
The state’s lion’s share is its commodities such as grains and dairy products, as well as processed foods. They’re sold across the country, and Wisconsin continues to develop markets overseas, because that’s where 96 percent of the world’s eaters live.
But the state is also begun promoting the local food movement; it encourages residents to buy foods produced close to home. The goal is to put fresher, more nutritious items on tables, while generating more business for Wisconsin producers.
Here’s more from WUWM's Marge Pitrof, on this, our our final day of Project Milwaukee: What’s on Our Plate?
Greg Lawless spent a year visiting grocery stores across Wisconsin. His mission was to highlight for them and their customers, which foods were produced in Wisconsin.
“They might not even know that two products sitting next to each other are very similar in price, and one is from Wisconsin. They may not even know. Frozen vegetables: there's a lot of products in those frozen departments that are from Wisconsin, grown here and they are processed here and frozen here and shipped to the grocery stores, but there's no way of knowing,” Lawless says.
Lawless directs the UW-Extension’s Agricultural Innovation Center. In order to raise shopper awareness, it’s been experimenting with tactics as simple as placing stickers on state-made products. But other tentacles have been sprouting to directly link Wisconsin food producers and consumers.
Of course there are farmers’ markets, the traditional place where the two meet; some have begun operating during the winter months, such as at State Fair Park. Even chefs have been getting into the act. They often cannot get the quanities of fresh items they want from farmers’ markets, so Milwaukee chef Dave Swanson has spent the last three years connecting local restaurants with Wisconsin farms. That’s meant coordinating a list of what farms can offer with the foods chefs here want, and finding a place to make the exchange.
The place is a warehouse on Milwaukee’s south side. An Antigo farm has just sent 2500 pounds of potatoes.
“We have three different varieties. We have some russets, some Yukon golds and some reds,” Swanson says.
A few feet away, sit huge boxes of squash that the warehouse can store until restaurants request them. And around the corner are shelves holding “dry” Wisconsin-made products such as honey and sunflower oil, and a freezer room filled with vegetables.
“Right now, we’re offering around 54 varieties of fresh produce, from potatoes to bok choy to turnips to rutabaga, cranberries to lettuce. It's really remarkable, even in mid-November, what we can offer a restaurant. People are just shocked at what grows around here,” Swanson says.
Co-worker Dan is holding the list of which products the restaurants have ordered, and will soon load the foods into a van and deliver them. Swanson says the chefs have committed themselves to incorporating more Wisconsin products into their menu.
“We really want to create a more regional cuisine of Wisconsin, but also kind of put Milwaukee, more restaurants using local food, create a better food scene here,” Swanson says.
Can you really taste the difference between fresh and a little bit older product?
“Oh yes. When we bring stuff in for the restaurants to try, it’s amazing. They say, wow, I can’t believe that a potato tasted that good, or an onion or whatever it is. They really just are blown away by having something from some of these farmers,” Swanson says.
The network now includes hundreds of producers and 15 Milwaukee restaurants. Swanson says the quantities their chefs have been ordering make the products affordable and worth the farmers’ while. He’s also enthusiastic about future collaborations with the warehouse next door. That’s where the operators of Sweet Water Organics are raising fish. The owners were inspired by Will Allen, the MIlwaukee farmer teaching the world how to grow produce in cities, so residents can eat healthier.
Out in Walworth County, the UW-Extension office is guiding women interested in starting a farm-related businesses. Educator Peg Reedy says that could include raising produce or making a product out of it.
“Women traditionally have been the ones that prepared the foods for their families and women are very concerned about the quality and safeness of food and they'd like to pass that on to the consumers,” Reedy says.
The program Reedy helps coordinate is called “Annie’s Project”, and it recently offered a workshop for budding entrepreneurs.
“Developing relationships is going to take you some effort and particularly, depending on your personality style," the instructor told the women.
Brigid McGeehan is listening and taking notes. She wants to start a small business planting gardens in people’s yards or on their balconies.
“Providing all of the material and actually planting what they would really like to be able to put on their table,” McGeehan says.
McGeehan is convinced people want to eat fresher foods and know who’s raising them, so she might sink her own resources into the business. Shelley Jurewicz hope things happen on an even grander scale. She’s vice president of the economic development group, the Milwaukee 7. Jurewicz says 70 cents of every dollar spent on local food remains in the community. So if that sector continues to flourish and intertwine with traditional food networks here, she says not only could business prosper, but the area’s reputation could change.
“Put all those together and you can come up with an image about this region that goes beyond beer, brats and cheese, and a real different impression of what the Milwaukee region has to offer the world,” according to Jurewicz.