George Reistad is the Communications Coordinator for the Community and Regional Food Systems Project (CRFS). You can learn more about his work with CRFS, as well as with the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, the Wisconsin Local Food Network and National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in a short bio at the end of this piece.
George hired me, Oona, as an Assistant Communications Coordinator for the project last spring to help compile and disseminate project findings and products to both food systems folks and to the general public. I’ll be sharing weekly blog posts for the next several months that feature the voices of project collaborators as CRFS wraps up, in the hopes that some of their learning and discussions can continue to support food systems work nationwide.
Written by: Oona Mackesey-Green
We left Madison at 7:30am to reach the Milwaukee Food Council (MFC) meeting by 9. Traffic crunched our timing; I followed George up the staircase in the corner of the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center, the windows to my right looking over César E. Chávez Drive, ten minutes before the meeting was set to begin. MFC chairperson Jesse Blom caught up to us, greeting us with enthusiastic handshakes and a genuine warm-eyed welcome.
I rarely travel to Milwaukee and although a significant portion of the Community and Regional Food Systems Project partners are based in the city – only a 90-minute drive away from the project’s hub at UW-Madison – this was my first visit to Milwaukee as a part of the project team.
The conference room at the top of the stairs was surprisingly full. The four long tables arranged in a rectangle quickly filled and latecomers eased into chairs along the outside wall. The agenda (repeatedly described as “packed” in emails and as the meeting commenced) began with an introduction of the meeting’s new host space, Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, and brief introductions of each attendee. The group included representatives of restaurants, nonprofit and community organizations, city committees, farmers and food producers, grocery stores and plenty of other organizations and businesses, as well as self-identified concerned citizens. As people trickled in, Blom paused discussions to greet them and bring them into the conversation.
” Nothing will work unless you do. ”
The Milwaukee Food Council convenes once every two months, usually at The Body and Soul Healing Arts Center on the north-side of Milwaukee. The level of engagement garnered by the council reflects eight years of dedication since its beginning. Whether working long, late and irregular hours in the food-service industry, wrangling the uncertainties of a community organization or dedicating the daily energy and resources needed to produce food, the additional measures required to regularly contribute to a network of peers often thwart nascent coalition building efforts. And yet, the MFC continues to strategically spread and root within the community.
An update regarding the Food Council’s endeavors to achieve 501(c)3 nonprofit status opened the agenda. The brief bullet point and apparent return to a topic tackled at earlier meetings became a consuming discussion when council members probed at the motivations for the structural change. Some members expressed the hope that nonprofit status, and with it, expanding funding opportunities, would increase the council’s effectiveness with the potential to pay staff for work currently done during limited volunteered time. With the time and funds to support these projects, the MFC might also expand its role as a partner with the growing Institute for Urban Agriculture and Nutrition (IUAN). Advocates for pursuing nonprofit status also acknowledged that MFC would seek funding through channels outside of competitive grant pools in Milwaukee. Council members often appealed to the organization’s mission and desire for collective impact. As written on the MFC’s website, the spirit of Maya Angelou’s reminder that “nothing will work unless you do”, wove a sense of personal responsibility through the collective conversation.
As a newcomer based in Madison, the exchange of ideas captured my attention more for the collective decision-making process exhibited. As members settled their queries and agreed to follow-up as needed outside of the meeting, the meeting continued moving forward in a value-driven fashion. Handouts and flyers about upcoming food and community related events in Milwaukee circulated around the table.
Clarene Mitchell, Community Engagement Manager of ResCare Workforce Services in Milwaukee closed the meeting with an overview of the new, statewide FoodShare Employment and Training program. Although the brief program summary finished up as the meeting’s scheduled end at 11am loomed minutes away, most members stayed after the presentation to follow-up with questions. The room emptied slowly, attendees mingling as they ate the last slices of banana bread and drained their coffee cups.
Before heading back to Madison, we stopped at Pete’s Fruit Market just a few blocks away to take advantage of the free green juice offer made to Council participants by Rob Heotis, store manager, at the meeting’s end. We encountered plenty of familiar faces equally overwhelmed by the overflowing baskets of deep purple eggplants, red and green serrano peppers, large white onions and a large selection of other fruits and vegetables spread down long stretches of tables near the store’s entrances. The baskets of produce with light spots or other aesthetic defects ranged from $1-$3 each. Rob emphasized their commitment to making healthy food accessible and affordable to neighborhood residents, as well as culturally relevant. Another section of the store offered produce at higher prices, as well as some organic varieties, to meet a range of customer needs. We exchanged incredulous greetings with a woman across the table, all of us loading baskets of hot peppers, cucumbers, potatoes – and more – into our carts – before the early afternoon drive back to Madison.
Since joining the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute as the Assistant Policy Director in August 2013, George has helped empower and educate grassroots stakeholders on numerous sustainable agriculture and food system policies, including the 2014 Farm Bill, the Food Safety Modernization Act, multiple federal conservation programs, and several state policies surrounding local foods. George has helped plan the annual Cover Crops Conference hosted by Michael Fields and the Natural Resources Conservation Service of WI and the Wisconsin Local Foods Day at the Capitol, hosted by the Wisconsin Local Food Network. He also currently co-coordinates communications for the Community and Regional Food Systems Project, sits on the board of the Wisconsin Local Food Network, and co-chairs the Diversity Committee of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. He continues to engage on state issues related to managed grazing, conservation, Farm to School, and local foods programming.