Milwaukee Nonprofit Connects Farmers to City’s Food Deserts

Milwaukee, WI – “Every population, every kind of community has a place they feel like they can’t go and that’s too bad especially if that’s preventing people from getting food,” said Dana McCormick, founder of the Milwaukee Good Food Bus. “I like how the bus can travel from one neighborhood to another.”

Started in 2020, the Milwaukee Good Food Bus (MGFB) is a pay-as-you-can produce delivery service with the mission of connecting local Wisconsin farmers and their produce to communities that struggle to gain access to said produce.

McCormick has been a Milwaukee resident for 14 years and has worked with the Tosa Farmers Market as a volunteer board member for 6 years. During her time working with the Tosa Farmers Market, she realized a few major problems: small scale farmers are barely making it in terms of selling their produce and the disconnect between rural Wisconsin farmers and Milwaukee residents. Most farmers don’t feel safe to travel to Milwaukee and some of its neighborhoods. Meanwhile, most communities of color don’t feel comfortable going to most farmers markets, especially ones that come off as white and wealthy like the Tosa Farmers Market.     

Dana noticed these issues and wanted to figure out a way to not only support struggling farmers but connect them to communities that struggle to gain access to fresh produce. “We were always looking to expand the number of customers a farmer can reach,” Dana shared. “We thought about having some kind of mobile service,” She shared during our interview, “So I’ve been kicking around this idea for a food bus. I’ve gotten so taken by the idea that I actually pitched it!”  

What was once a pitch for an assignment for her Substantial Food Systems Certificate program would later be birthed as what we know today as “The Milwaukee Good Food Bus.”

It had a strong first year: more than 450 customers, 22 deliveries a day, 40 meal kits packed and served to 250 people and provided $5,123 dollars in sales to local farmers. 

These accomplishments wouldn’t have been possible  without the bus’s lead organizer Annia Leonard. 

“I hired Annia who has been awesome, very community minded. I think Annia has a lot of complementary qualities to me, like I had the idea and the funding, and Annia has everything else.” Dana said with a chuckle. 

Model and organizer Annia Leonard (They/Them) is a born and raised Milwaukee resident, with pedigree and years of organizing experience Milwaukee. Annia first made contact with Dana when they were, (and still is) experiencing housing instability during the 2020 pandemic. “So I had a bunch of people living with me. All of us had experience with housing displacement. My housing was unstable because I had roommates move out,” Annia shared.

A chance encounter online is what got these two to cross paths. Annia said, “My friends did a GoFundMe to try and support us from getting kicked out of our house and we ended up still getting kicked out. Around this time, Dana hit me up” 

“I interviewed a few people, and then I saw [Annia’s] GoFundMe. Somewhere in the blurb it mentioned something about food justice and needing a job. I just shot [them] a facebook message out of the blue and was like ‘Would you apply for this job?’” Dana again chuckled off. “I wanted to find someone [not only] to ride around with me, and hand out bags of food but actually know a community, [and care about the problem of food justice].”

Annia is accredited with a lot of the growth of the bus such as its social media presence, obtaining a space to store the produce with Milwaukee’s community Upstart Kitchen, gotten their certificate in food management, expanded volunteer and employment opportunities and collaborated with local Milwaukee chiefs to create recipes and meal kits to teach how to cook unique produce. 

“I created [the meal kit program] because [at the farmers markets] we have different  types of foods being grown, particularly with our Hmong [farmers] that a lot of people from the inner city aren’t familiar with unless you’re Hmong or cook food from their cultures,” Annia said.

“Milwaukee has one of the worst food insecurity problems in the country,” Dana says. According to the 2019 Milwaukee Fresh Food Access Report, 21 percent of Milwaukee’s population of around 124,000, live further than 1 mile from a grocery store. Milwaukee has been known for its “food deserts” –  a geographic area where residents have limited access to food. From the 2019 Milwaukee Fresh Food Access Report, “ – the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), multiple factors influence the access of low-income households to healthy foods. These include the distance a household must travel to a store that stocks healthy food; family income; the availability of a vehicle, and the availability of public transportation.” 

“At the start [of this job] just noticing the first couple of stops we were at were senior citizens homes and community centers” Annia shares they’ve reflected on the importance of the buses services, “Like wow! People really need their groceries delivered to them.”

Milwaukee used to have 13 food deserts before the USDA restructured the definition of the term. Since then, the number has gone down to 4, meaning most residents live about a 10-minute walk away from a place to gather ingredients for a meal. 

In spite of this change, it still doesn’t improve the quality of community food systems that exist in these communities and Milwaukeeans eating habits. ‘Food systems’ according to the ReFresh Milwaukee – Milwaukee Sustainability Plan 2013-2023 is explained as “all processes involved in keeping us fed: growing, harvesting, processing (or transforming or changing), packaging, transporting, marketing, consuming, and disposing of food and food packages.” 

In the same report, a community food system is explained as “a food system in which food production, processing, distribution, and consumption (and recycling) is integrated to enhance the environmental, economic, social and nutritional health of a particular place.” Milwaukee has greatly improved accessibility to food with the use of farmers markets, community gardens and partnerships with organizations such as Hunger Task Force. But it still doesn’t change the communities’ disconnection to farmers markets as well as peoples’ relationship to fresh produce.  

An element of the issues to provide fresh is people’s experiences with food insecurity which can cause food trauma, which according to Annia, is peoples disconnect to access, cooking, eating, preserving, and disposing of fresh produce, greatly affects Milwaukeeans health and eating habits. According to the ReFresh Milwaukee – Milwaukee Sustainability Plan 2013-2023, “[Milwaukeeans at] 69 percent do not consume the recommended number of servings of fresh fruits and vegetables daily, and 51 percent report no access to healthy food. 37 percent are overweight, and 31 percent are clinically obese. These percentages increase for lower socioeconomic groups in the city.” 

Dana and Annia are well aware of these issues (as they’ve stated above) and they work for the bus to not only be a bridge between farmers and eaters but to also educate the community on how to cook, eat, preserve, and dispose of fresh produce. 

As for long term goals for the bus, “I[‘d] really love to do hydroponics and like a science lab on the bus,” Annia shared, hoping that it could lead to MGFB growing their own herbs and spices. 

Dana has broader wishes for the bus. “My ideal vision is in 5 years to have 3 vehicles so the whole city can be covered.” 

She wishes to have their own storage unit and be an aggregating hub for farmers and farmers coming to them to sell produce. There’s also talk of becoming an employee-owned co-operative with an advisory board of farmers and community members with a membership share program.

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