Feeding Milwaukee

City and business leaders tackle food desert issue

Milwaukee Alderman Khalif Rainey and Sherrie Tussler, executive director

Last updated on May 17th, 2022 at 08:43 pm

Most weeks, Kornisha Lymon buys her groceries at a corner market near her home at West Chambers and North 14th streets in Milwaukee’s North Division neighborhood.

With $20, the 39-year-old mother of five is able to buy a loaf of bread, a package of bologna and a gallon of milk.


Lymon would prefer to shop at the Pick ’n Save store on North 35th Street and West North Avenue, but with limited access to a car, she only gets there about once a month.

“I used to go to Lena’s, but they closed down,” Lymon said, referring to the Lena’s Food Market at 4030 N. Teutonia Ave. that closed recently. The grocery store operator also closed its market on West Oak Street, just off West Fond du Lac Avenue, about 18 months ago. Its location at Midtown Center is still open.

Some areas of the City of Milwaukee, particularly on the north and west sides, are in “food deserts,” where there are a lack of full service grocery stores with fresh and healthy food options. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a low-income area where at least one-third of residents live more than one mile from the nearest full-service grocery store. But figuring out how to provide fresh food for all of Milwaukee’s residents is more complicated than a simple definition.

Milwaukee has tried to tackle the food desert problem for years. With big-box and new food retailers opening in the suburbs, including Meijer and Costco, there is a renewed interest by city officials and area business leaders in the issue.

Technically, Lymon doesn’t live in a food desert. She lives about 10 blocks from Galst Foods, an 18,000-square-foot supermarket at 1622 W. North Ave.

But for various reasons, she doesn’t want to shop there, instead choosing to buy $5 milk from a corner store.

Location factors

Big-box retailers need density, large parking lots and easy access to the store. Often, that isn’t available in the central city. Retailers prefer areas with a higher median income and while low-income residents can buy food with food stamps, they lack disposable income to purchase non-essential items. If a store does open, it needs to sell its food quickly in order to make a profit.

“There are about 100 different things that we look at when choosing a store, including demographics, density, education, in-home food habits, and then we lay them all on a map and certain areas glow like a beacon,” said Chris Sherrell, the chief executive officer of Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, which opened its first Wisconsin store June 8 near downtown Milwaukee and is planning stores in Greenfield, Brookfield, Kenosha and Menomonee Falls.

Once Sherrell has his map of glowing areas, he hires a local real estate broker to find the hot spots where a store would make the most sense.

“The central city areas just don’t glow on the map,” Sherrell said. “They just don’t have the income or the population anymore. We’ve never been against it, but as a new company, we’re not up for the challenge at this point. Maybe if we open a couple hundred stores and become a billion dollar company, it would be something we could consider.”

Grocery store chains have specific business models that drive volume and profit by selling products. In addition to selling the food, the stores are able to make even more money by agreeing to carry certain vendors’ products and placing them in a certain areas of the store—typically called an “endcap.”

“There is a lot of competition for that and in the past it was easier in the suburbs, where consumers have been more willing to buy products in the outer ring of the grocery store, where the perishables are,” said Stu Wangard, chairman and chief executive officer of Wauwatosa-based real estate development firm Wangard Partners Inc. “A lot of stores in the central city focus heavily on salty snacks and carbonated drinks.”

At one time, Wangard Partners was Piggly Wiggly’s primary landlord. The company now manages six Wisconsin Piggly Wiggly stores, a Cub Foods in Minneapolis and Pick ’n Save stores in the Fox Valley, Oconomowoc, Kenosha and on the northwest side of Milwaukee.

Wangard’s Freshwater Plaza development, currently under construction in Walker’s Point, will include a Cermak Fresh Market grocery store.

Two chains that have been able to make it work in central cities are Aldi, the German-based global discount supermarket chain specializing in staple and household items and SuperValu, with its discount format, Save-a-Lot, Wangard said.

Save-a-Lot currently has five stores in the metro Milwaukee area and is considering a sixth store in the former Lena’s at 2322 W. Oak St. The Milwaukee Common Council will consider those plans this summer.

“We’re looking at two other grocery store chains, but it’s still too early to talk about,” Wangard said. “We’re not sure exactly where they are going to locate.”

City strategy

Alderman Khalif Rainey brought the food desert issue to the city’s attention last month when he directed city staff to develop an incentive to bring a large grocery store to the 7th District. Rainey’s district, which has 40,000 residents, stretches from North 20th Street to North 60th Street and from West Center Street to West Villard Avenue. The 7th District includes a Lena’s Food Market, but Rainey is hoping to attract something more transformative to anchor his community.

Lena’s Teutonia location was cited by the Milwaukee Health Department seven times in 2010 for health code violations, including grease and grime on racks in the deli, meat and fish departments. In May 2015, the city documented a “severe rat problem” and “severe fly infestation” at the Oak Street location.

Milwaukee Alderman Khalif Rainey and Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Hunger Task Force, at King’s Food Market in Rainey’s district.
Milwaukee Alderman Khalif Rainey and Sherrie Tussler, executive director
of Hunger Task Force, at King’s Food Market in Rainey’s district.

Lena’s owners would not comment.

“This is a humanitarian issue,” Rainey said. “I want to engage with retailers and find out what incentives it would take for them to locate in an underserved area. Whole Foods offers a program to locate a franchise in distressed areas. Let’s look at that. They’ve (provided incentives) in New York, they’ve done it in Chicago, why not here?”

Working off of Rainey’s original recommendation, a Common Council committee has expanded his directive to include the entire city. Within the next three months, Milwaukee’s Department of City Development will come up with a Fresh Food Access Strategy for the Common Council to consider.

The hope is to develop a plan that will increase access to affordable and fresh foods for residents across the entire city of Milwaukee by looking at food market data and trends and strategies currently being used by local and federal agencies.

Incentives are a possibility, but before that is on the table, city officials have to wrap their heads around what retailers are looking for when choosing a location, said Martha Brown, deputy commissioner of the Department of City Development.

“There are various initiatives around the country to attract and improve access to quality food,” Brown said. “We want to look at that and let it be a basis for our recommendations to the Common Council.”

Near West Side Partners, a nonprofit organization made up of the business leaders from the largest companies located in the Menomonee Valley, has also hired Colliers International Wisconsin with the hope of attracting a grocery store to that area, as well as other commercial real estate investors.

Customer data

In mid-June, Lymon and her 14-year-old son Larrenzo saw a truck parked outside the House of Peace Community Center at 17th and Walnut streets.

Painted on the side of the truck was a logo reading “Fresh Picks Mobile Market.”

They wandered inside and saw a mini grocery store. Brightly colored produce lined the front of the truck. Dairy and meat products, all priced under $6, were near the checkout counter. There were no canned items or processed foods on the truck. And thanks to a federal grant, the majority of the items were reduced by 25 percent.

The Mobile Market, which is a partnership between Milwaukee anti-hunger nonprofit Hunger Task Force and the Pick ’n Save grocery store chain, makes 34 stops per month in the city’s food deserts. It has gained a following since launching in October 2015.

Lymon has never seen it before.

“Milk is $1.49,” Lymon says, shaking her head in disbelief as she gets off the truck.

A dozen eggs cost 74 cents. The market takes food stamps, credit and debit cards. No cash is allowed.

“I’m lovin’ it,” Lymon says to her son, explaining that they will come back.

“The corner markets don’t have fresh produce. If they do have apples or oranges, they’re only available in the morning,” Lymon says. “You’re better off saving money until the truck comes by.”

Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force, is spearheading a campaign to collect data for city officials to use to combat Milwaukee’s food desert problem. Pick ’n Save supplies the food, Hunger Task Force the knowledge of the neighborhoods.

Tussler has spent nearly 20 years at the Hunger Task Force. Before that, she worked at homeless shelters and feeding the homeless nonprofit organizations. Not much surprises her.

Four years ago, Milwaukee’s Northwestern Mutual Foundation asked the Hunger Task Force to improve emergency food access to the worst food desert in the city, the Amani Neighborhood, which is bounded by 35th Street on the west, 15th Street on the east, Capitol Drive on the north and North Avenue on the south.

“Most people have never been there because there is no reason to go,” Tussler said. “There are no goods or service there. No coffee shops, no stores, no library, no churches. What there is are boarded up houses, one of the city’s most failing schools and one institution.”

The first thing she did was send staff members to the corner stores in the Amani neighborhood with a list of 40 things a household would need—staples like ground beef, apples and bread—stuff a mom would buy for her two kids, Tussler said.

They were able to get 70 percent of the items and paid 40 percent more than what they would have paid at a traditional grocery store.

Next, she sent a bus to the neighborhood at 1 p.m. every Thursday throughout summer. The bus picked up residents – between six and 15 people every week. Riders were given a $10 gift card to Woodman’s in exchange for a peek at their grocery store receipt after they shopped.

“They bought bottled water and candy bars and sold the items on the street,” Tussler said. “It’s entrepreneurship at its finest.”

One Thursday, mid-summer, Tussler got on the bus. She needed more information. Nine people were on board and she told them it was their lucky day. She had $100 gift cards.

With a little more money, Tussler could see what people would actually buy. Three young women pooled their gift cards and bought diapers and a curling iron. The majority of the others bought meat to grill and frozen meals to microwave.

“Some bought fruits and vegetables, but no one has a refrigerator or stove, just a microwave and grill,” Tussler said. “This is the kind of information the Mobile Market can tell us. I know that we need five kinds of greens and smoked meat on the north side. And on the south side, not so much. Avocados, pork and chicken sell there.”

A map of Milwaukee County grocery stores provided by the Hunger Task Force.
A map of Milwaukee County grocery stores provided by the Hunger Task Force.

Existing models

South side residents have more access to grocery stores, thanks in large part to El Rey, a family-owned and -operated Hispanic grocery store.

The original Super Mercado El Rey opened in 1978 at 1023 S. Cesar E. Chavez Drive to bring produce from Mexico to people in Milwaukee. The store was expanded three times in three years to serve the growing customer base and a warehouse was opened on South Fifth Street to make tortillas served at local restaurants.

In 1995, El Rey opened a warehouse on South 35th and West Burnham streets.

As Milwaukee’s Hispanic population changed, the grocer began selling food from South America and the Caribbean. In 1999, El Rey Food Mart opened on South 13th Street and West Forest Home Avenue, and El Rey relocated the original warehouse to 1530 S. Muskego Ave.

In 2007, the El Rey Super Mercado moved from its original location across the street to 916 S. Cesar E. Chavez Drive. The El Rey Family Market was opened at South 51st Street and West Oklahoma Avenue in 2011.

“El Rey has always known what their customers want, which is critical for stores’ success,” Tussler said. “I mean, you can be Meijer or whoever and say, ‘Here’s my food and it’s inexpensive and I’m enormous,’ or you can go, ‘I know how much to sell an avocado for and I know what my people eat.’”

Two other innovative models taking their business to the north side to address the food desert issue are Outpost Natural Foods Co-Op and Pete’s Fruit Market.

In October, Outpost opened a 675-square-foot pop-up store in the Innovation & Wellness Commons development at North 16th Street and West North Avenue. The tiny store is a new concept for Outpost, with owners vowing to explore a larger format store down the road if the co-op is well received by the community.

In April, south side grocer Pete’s Fruit Market announced plans to open a north side location in a former 13,700-square-foot Walgreen’s store at the northwest corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and North Avenue in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

Juli Kaufmann, who developed the Innovation & Wellness Commons through her real estate company Fix Development, is hoping both Pete’s and Outpost will be a success because they are foregoing the old grocery store model.

“Big box was predicated on huge parking lots, and of course you are never going to put that in a central city,” Kaufmann said. “What works in neighborhoods is a bodega, and we just don’t use that model because Milwaukee, historically, has not been dense enough.”

Marquette University has been able to make people realize that two miles is too far for a grocery store, using students as an example, but there are families living on the near west side and near north side facing the same obstacles, Kaufmann said.

“It all has to do with how you get your food source,” Kaufmann said. “If you live in the suburbs and you are five miles away, it’s not a desert. But if you are a mile away without a car, it’s a problem. Another thing is you have to be culturally dialed in. That is how El Rey, while more traditional, has been so successful.”

Once Tussler has enough data collected from the Mobile Market, she plans to pound on the door of Milwaukee’s Department of City Development and give them the information. She believes there is great development opportunity in the central city for grocery stores – if the right model is used.

“You need an entrepreneur and they will have to be able to get the food at the same pricing as Pick ’n Save,” Tussler said. “Is there a chain savvy enough to go micro? I don’t know. I would think if you want to make a pile of money, I can show you how.”

Wangard believes the data will be invaluable for the city.

“I don’t care if we’re talking about Kenosha, Oconomowoc or Metcalfe Park, one of the first questions I always get from someone is ‘Can you bring us a Trader Joe’s?’” Wangard said. “Each of these stores have a model and an area where their model is going to do its best. One of the chains that is the most nimble is Whole Foods, which has opened stores as small as 17,000 square feet or as large as 50,000 square feet.”

Whole Foods opened an 18,000-square-foot store in Englewood, one of Chicago’s most economically depressed neighborhoods.

“There are a lot of things that go into having a high-performing store. We have a Pick ’n Save store at 102nd Street and Silver Spring that has a produce area and a meat and fish area that is different than our store in Kenosha, the store in Neenah and the store in Oconomowoc—you fine tune them,” Wangard said. “And that store may be fine-tuned, too, when the demographics change. You have to keep changing the model to make it work.”

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