Milwaukee's Urban Garden Blitz Spreads to New Communities

May 15, 2015

Friday marks day seven of the 15-day urban garden blitz in the Milwaukee area.

Several hundred volunteers are ferrying wooden planks and trucking mound upon mound of soil to build, and fill 4x8 raised garden beds. The effort is in its 7th season and is the brainchild of the Victory Garden Initiative, or VGI.

WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence set out for a progress report on its “move grass – grow food” mission. Bence caught up with VGI founder Gretchen Mead and a soil delivery team across from Koscuiszko Park on Milwaukee’s south side while they were on their first stop of the morning.

Homeowner Laura Manriquez plans to plant strawberries in her VGI raised bed, a request made by her granddaughter.

Gretchen Mead, executive director of the Victory Garden Initiative, and South side resident Laura Manriquez and her raised bed.
Credit S Bence

She stumbled upon about the gardening blitz while looking through a magazine at the doctor's office. She had a terrible accident, which resulted in a traumatic brain injury.

"I've been going through therapy...and lo and behold there was a magazine there as I was trying to find my way, through depression, anxiety, panic...as a result of the traumatic brain injury and I saw this beautiful initiative. And, I said one of my passions has been gardening because my father taught me as a child...," Manrique says. "And, I said I have to find a way to get myself back above ground and get myself doing those things I enjoy because I was slowly slipping away."

Gretchen Mead adds, "The thing that struck me immediately while talking with Laura was the story of healing and resilience and how growing food connects to those things for so many people."

"There are so many entry points. You know, there are so many reasons why people come to the table, and sometimes it’s pain, sometimes it’s health, sometimes it’s fear for the future, sometimes it’s joy​," she says. "It almost always comes from an emotional spot."

Kelly Moore Brands, VGI Community Program Manager; Gretchen Mead, VGI founder; and volunteer Brandon Arrington.
Credit S Bence

Mead comes from a background in social work. She sees her work with VGI as a different kind of social work - rather than connecting someone to a physician, she's connecting someone to a garden.

Over the years, VGI has established over 2,000 raised beds in the Milwaukee area, and now, the initiative is spreading to new communities. Green Bay is in its second year. Berea, Kentucky is carrying out its first blitz this month.

Both communities reached out to VGI for information. "Green Bay was an experiment for us. We put together a training, it is called Blitz Your Town Training, and the goal of it is to teach people how to do the blitz and, by the new of the training, to bring a core group people who are going to move it forward," VGI founder Gretchen Mead says.

"We keep getting these kinds of requests in many communities. It just keeps growing," she adds. "I think the blitz is an amazing catalyzer for a food movement for any community that wants to engage more fully."