Regional
1:00 am
Mon March 24, 2014

Shopkeepers, Gardeners and Farmers Work to Eliminate Milwaukee's Food Deserts

Jas Kirantoor hopes to get more fruit and vegetables into the hands of Merrill Park residents
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

There are a number of efforts underway in Milwaukee to supply fresh food to areas that are not near a large grocery store.

One is the work of Jas Kirantoor, who just opened Natt Grocery last week in the Merrill Park neighborhood. The shop on the corner of 35th and St. Paul sells a variety of fruits and vegetables, in addition to corner store staples, such as snacks, cigarettes and lottery tickets.

Kirantoor says there’s no supermarket nearby. So she hopes her new neighbors will buy produce at her store. She has a pretty small produce cooler, about the size of a home refrigerator. But she says she’ll buy another one and devote additional shelf space to fruits and vegetables if they become popular sellers.

She’s still figuring out what customers want, and is learning not to buy too much of items that don’t sell quickly, since produce goes bad. Kirantoor says she’s also trying to determine how much to charge. She began selling pieces of fruit for 50 cents, but has dropped the price to 20 cents.

Kirantoor says, as a mother, she knows the importance of feeding children healthy food. So she’s been pointing out the fruits and vegetables to kids and their parents. She says she wants to help those accustomed to processed food learn what to do with fresh items, by handing out recipes.

The café and market Growing Power opened on the near north side nearly two years ago also is using recipes to help turn people onto healthier food choices. Executive Chef and Manager DeShawn Parker says a lot of shoppers are buying or learning to grow ingredients for dishes they’ve sampled at the café.

“I have a lot of my customers that come in and ask me how do I make the avocado salad. They’ll come and by two pounds of salad mix, buy their own avocados, make their own avocado salad," Parker says. "I’ve got some people that started making their own gardens, started to make their own vegetables, cutting it up, eating it at home."

The café and market is another attempt underway to supply healthier food choices to central city residents. The shop sells items from the Growing Power farm and other local suppliers. Parker says the farm-fresh eggs have been a hit. He sold at least 20 dozen last week.

In coming years, Growing Power would love to expand to other neighborhoods says Parker. But it’s a slow process, “we didn’t expect for it to happen within a year. It’s going to take some time for everybody to learn how to eat healthier and for other people to know that we’re here," Parker says.

Growing Power opened its café and market in August 2012 with a bounty of produce for sale
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

Milwaukee’s central city has a number of food deserts, areas the USDA defines as low-income where at least one-third of residents live more than a mile from the nearest big grocery store. That concerns advocates for healthy eating, such as Venice Williams. She’s executive director of Alice’s Garden, a community garden near the corner of Fond du Lac and North.

A few years ago, grant funding helped Alice’s Garden begin growing fruits and vegetables for a handful of central city corner stores. This year, Alice’s Garden will supply produce to another half-dozen corner stores.

“It doesn’t come just from the property at 21st and Garfield, we also grow food for the Healthy Corner Store Initiative at the Fondy Farm, so we have an acre, and we are actually expanding to help produce that food,” Williams says.

Williams says the corner store program is part of a success story in her corner of the city. Some residents are growing fresh food for themselves, while others can buy it at the corner stores, or the nearby Fondy Farmers Market.

“Maybe ten years ago, that particular neighborhood was a food desert. But it really is not a food desert anymore,” Williams says.

The near south side is the site of another success story, according to the Hunger Task Force in Milwaukee. Executive Director Sherrie Tussler says the network of El Rey grocery stores -- and a relative newcomer, Cermak – provide a good selection of produce, at reasonable prices.

Even so, she and Venice Williams agree, it’s still too hard for people in many Milwaukee neighborhoods to obtain fresh, affordable healthy food.