In 2008, the MacArthur Foundation awarded urban farming visionary Will Allen, CEO of Growing Power, a genius award. The announcement made Allen a food justice icon and fueled public interest in urban agriculture. With this interest in view, I will be profiling here, and at my blog envo, nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and small farmers who are transforming the urban food landscape one plot, one market, and one community at a time.
When asked to describe the mission of Fondy Food Center, executive director and Community Food Security Coalition board member Young Kim has this to say: “I think any kind of change in individual behaviors, really happens one conversation, one relationship at a time. And so there’s a term that’s been bouncing around in my head—‘micro-politics’—the politics of a 120-block neighborhood.” Fondy Food Center is proof positive of this 120-block approach to food system change. A 501(c) nonprofit, Fondy serves the near north side neighborhood of Milwaukee, Wisconsin through a May-November market, nutrition programs, and Youth Chef Academy.
Focused on just three zip codes, Fondy builds on the intergenerational traditions of its community, which is predominately African American and Southeast Asian. Case in point is the Fondy cooking club series. The series features professional and home chefs from the community who are already updating family recipes with the latest ideas in health and wellness. “Updating” is a key concept at Fondy, where staff and patrons integrate, rather than do away with, existing community knowledge (replacing pork with smoked turkey or preserving summer produce, for example). This principle inspires cooking demonstrations that blend comfort foods with ingredients like wild arugula that nudge the community out of comfort zones and “stretch their palates.” As Kim puts it, the Fondy cooking club says to the community, “Let’s look at your grandmother’s recipes, and ask how can we can adapt it while keeping the cultural continuity, so you are making your ‘contribution’ to the tradition.”
But the weekly market and culinary programs are only two aspects of the Fondy mission, which the group has just rewritten. If the prior mission statement emphasized the community’s deficits—grocery stores, public funding, and nutritional expertise—the 2010 language conveys a proactive, community-center framework for urban food activism.
“Fondy Food Center,” the new statement reads, “Connects Greater Milwaukee to local, fresh food from farm to table through support of small-scale Wisconsin farmers to secure the supply of fresh food to Milwaukee, cooking-based nutrition education for youth and adults, and finally, the historic Hay Market tradition.” Kim poignantly explains that the statement offers an alternative to the idea that inner-city communities are “food deserts” and embodies Fondy’s commitment to transform the food system on a neighborhood, rather than national, scale.
The mission statement reflects the third, and perhaps most unique feature, of Fondy Food Center. Fondy goes beyond advocacy for the small farmers who supply the Saturday market. Through their GrowRight Program, the group not only provides a commercial venue for farmers but also facilitates farm visits as well as business and marketing education. Here, Fondy is responding proactively to the changing needs of its market farmers.
The Fondy market has deep roots, reaching back to the 1930s. From those origins through the 1980s, most farmers were European American. But the “face of the Wisconsin farmer” is changing, Kim explains, and today is comprised of both Hmong families, who farmed in Southeast Asia before emigrating to the U.S. as refugees, and post-college graduates, who grew up in cities or suburbs but are keen to make farming their livelihood. (On this note, I would encourage readers to check out the work of the innovative Greenhorns group, which advocates for and recruits young people to farming.)
As of 2003, Fondy’s vendors were 90 percent Southeast Asian, a community of seasoned farmers who lease land on the outskirts of Milwaukee while living in the same near north side neighborhood that the market serves. Put differently, the boundaries between farmer and eater, city and country, are collapsing in Milwaukee, a trend observable in other cities from Detroit to New Orleans. Most of the Hmong farmers that sell at Fondy’s market have decades of farming experience that results in new crops for the market: sorghum, sweet potato greens, and mature cucumbers, for example. Yet this talented farming community faces real challenges: exorbitant land prices, a lack of irrigation and machinery, and limited access to refrigeration facilities. These factors translate into daily harvests and manual tilling of the soil, preventing what Kim calls a “humane schedule” of farm work.
With this complex picture in view, Fondy is taking a wide view of its mission while sticking to its focus on micro-politics. In collaboration with foundations and social entrepreneurs, the group is working to transform how its market farmers farm while building bridges between inner-city neighborhoods and Wisconsin farmland. While the specifics of new projects have not yet been released, Fondy Food Center is no doubt visionary on this score, offering a model for groups around the country whose commitments are to changing the urban food system one zip code at a time.