meet gretchen: changing the food system in milwaukee

Gretchen Mead with Panache

Another awesome Gretchen win: She got her children’s school to stop serving chocolate milk at every meal and snack. “Part of what was astounding to me in the municipality where I live was the sort of unquestionable and accidental institutional racism occurring through the food system. It’s not intentional, but people don’t consider in a community like Shorewood that most of the low-income people come from the inner city, with a high and growing rate of diabetes within African-Americans. Students come here on the food program and have access to chocolate milk up to four times a day! Each has the sugar equivalent of a soda of the same size.”

“Today is going to be chaotic.

“We are trying to do a very big job, so if it’s not happening exactly how you thought it might, just go with it.

“And understand that you’re still volunteering for the Blitz, even if it wasn’t exactly what you thought it was going to be.”

For the first three years of the Great Milwaukee Victory Garden Blitz, held every May since 2009, Gretchen Mead started off each morning with this speech. It fits so many days of this beautiful, unpredictable life. Every day may not go as planned, but each brings us one step closer to who we want to be, and what footprints we want to leave.

Gretchen started off gathering friends and installing 40 raised-bed gardens in one day. Now the Blitz is up to 500 gardens in Milwaukee in two weeks with hundreds of volunteers. Gretchen created Victory Garden Initiative (the wildly, wonderfully inspiring place where I spend my working days and find most of my passion) and has built a team that is creating a socially just, community-based, sustainable and nutritious food system, one project at a time.

People with Panache: Why did you start VGI?

Gretchen Mead: I started it for several reasons, the big one being I felt like the food system needed to be changed in a major, major way. My personal interest and passion pointed me to believing that the greatest change we could make to our food system was to grow our own food. So myself and a group of friends started working to help people grow food, and almost 6 years later we’re going into our 6th annual Great Milwaukee Victory Garden Blitz!

PWP: Was there a particular moment you had to do something—a moment you could no longer NOT do something?

GM: Oh, there were several moments I couldn’t not do something. I did a lot of different somethings in relationship to food, starting with my own health and how I raise my children. And then there were other acts of rebellion, like deciding to put the garden in my front yard in Shorewood, where people value a nice green front lawn, and the moment I cared more about what I thought was right or wrong rather than what my neighbors thought.

Gretchen Laughing :)

“One of the things I like about continuing to do social work is it really keeps me real. That deep part of me can get overlooked because I’m too busy doing different kinds of work. That’s why I still run the Food Leader program, teach classes, those kinds of activities—it always flexes my heart muscle in a really needed way.”

PWP: What else did you do before you started VGI?

GM: I took on a lot of different projects. Before I knew I was forming an organization, when we put in gardens for the first Blitz, somebody put a garden in their parkway. That’s the area between the sidewalk and the street, technically Village-owned land, so that was against ordinance. One of my biggest allies—who is now on my board—planted it there, because it was his sunniest spot. And he got a ticket within minutes.

We pulled together a group to fight it. The city started to put together ordinances to control and contain front yard gardening. It frustrated a lot of people but it was the best resistance that we could’ve gotten because it rallied people together. We showed up at meetings to fight the rules, to really push boundaries of what it meant, and got so much attention, so much media, that we ended up on National Public Radio. It was the best thing that could’ve happened to our organization and unified this movement.

PWP: When did you realize more people were getting it?

GM: I think it happened pretty quickly, and I recognized for my own self how important it was over time. I always knew it was important, and the more I thought, spoke, read about it, even I was more convinced.

Part of the VGI team on People With Panache

“VGI is designed to bring people in. It’s the biggest part of what we do: Bring in those who are thinking about it, contemplating, making change,” Gretchen says. “They know something needs to be done, and are wondering what to do, how to do it…This is so tantalizing, tempting, fun, doable, tangible, delicious that it makes it hard for the contemplators to say no.”

Now it’s sort of irreversible. I could tolerate certain bad behaviors from myself 6 years ago in relationship to food that I could never tolerate now.

PWP: Like what?

GM: I could just never eat at a fast food restaurant again. There’s just no reason why at the very least you can’t stop at a gas station and get an apple and some nuts.

I am blessed to be surrounded by people who are passionate about what we’re doing, and hopeful, and they have momentum. They’re willing to roll up their sleeves and help, donate, volunteer, work at their children’s schools… The things the people around me do are countless and endless.

PWP: Is there a particular part of doing your job that is your favorite?

GM: I love strategizing about how to engage the most people in growing their own food. It’s my favorite thing to do.

PWP: That’s what you do! You think of ideas that are just close enough to being realistic that we can make them happen, but not everyone would.

GM: Yes, exactly. That’s what I like to do: Push the boundary just enough, be in tune with what people are thinking, create a sustainable, just, healthy food system by growing your own food.

“I love it when people just want to get work done… When they don’t get apathetic because it’s hard and overwhelming.”

I like working with my staff—they’re awesome, fun, smart, committed people, and it’s nice to have a team. I have a job that’s sometimes frustrating but mostly very, very rewarding. Sometimes I can’t believe that 5 years ago I was on maternity leave, and now I run a nonprofit organization and I’m able to bring in enough resources to have a staff of 5 people. That blows my mind! Especially because I wasn’t really planning it. That’s the thing. It was just serendipitous, or magic. I think it was magic.

PWP: That kind of reminds me of a little magazine clipping I have in my medicine cabinet with a quote by Roald Dahl: “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” What are some of your favorite quotes?

Gretchen Mead on People With Panache

“My career path is pretty crooked because I was a very young mother, got remarried and had two children. So I went to college, had a child, went back to college and finished it.” She moved to Milwaukee for her masters in social work and was a social worker in the medical system for quite awhile. (Then along came VGI!)

GM: I have so many quotes that resonate with me! There is Margaret Mead’s quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

PWP: And your last name is Mead! Are you distantly related?

GM: Let’s say this—I can’t guarantee it, but I remain hopeful! Then there’s this poem by Marge Piercy, called “To Be of Use”:

“The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.”

There’s more to it. But when I read that I thought, I love that, too. I love it when people just want to get work done. When they don’t make excuses. When they don’t get apathetic because it’s hard and overwhelming. When they just keep deciding every day just to get it done.

Marianne Williamson on People With Panache

One of Gretchen’s favorite quotes

PWP: What keeps you motivated?

GM: A lot of things! I do go through periods I feel worn down, but I’m always trying to figure out the next best way to do things. That’s a nice challenge for me.

In a bigger-picture way, it’s being part of something outside of yourself. Being part of the bigger, greater good always motivates me. And I have children. It’s time to stop passing the buck to the next generation. I’m embarrassed we have continued to pass down a non-sustainable system to generation after generation after generation. We must act and change our food system to a local, community-based food system. We have to do it now.

[Photos by Alysse.]

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4 thoughts on “meet gretchen: changing the food system in milwaukee

  1. Morgan

    Alysse, another inspiring interview as always. Keep up the great work. I am so glad to see Gretchen on the blog, all the photos and beautiful quotes were lovely. 🙂 You both are amazing powerhouses and am thankful to know you both.

  2. Tamaram

    Beeeyoooteeeeful interview Gretchen and Alysse. So motivated, so inspired by this. Gretchen, how synchronistic that Alysse asked you about m.mead….I’ve often wondered that myself. 🙂 Loved, loved, loved this. Makes me wish I could work with yous and see your lovely faces on the daily.

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