Local food movement gains momentum

Milwaukeeans increasingly are buying their meat, produce and grains from local farmers.

Urban farms, grocery cooperatives, farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs provide opportunities to eat locally grown food.

Eat Local Milwaukee, a collaboration between the Urban Ecology Center, local food cooperative Outpost Natural Foods and food enthusiast group #MKE Foodies, was established in 2007, said volunteer Anne Steinberg. The motto: “Eat food that is good for you, our community and the planet.”

“If you think of all the people who go to farmers’ markets and belong to CSAs, there’s a lot of interest in local food,” Steinberg said. “People are more concerned about eating healthy food and knowing where their food comes from.”

Growing Power, an urban farm program started in 1993 to provide healthy food and work for residents of underserved Milwaukee communities, is growing quickly.

The organization had 10 employees in 2000 and has more than 100 today, and CEO Will Allen hopes to add 50 more in the next year.

Growing Power, which grows produce and raises fish, has garnered international attention for its intensive urban gardening approach.

Growing and eating food locally cuts down on fossil fuel consumption that is used to ship commercial foods, Allen said. Having healthy food available can also help address the obesity epidemic, he said.

“We want to see thousands of people grow their own food in their backyard and side yard and balconies,” Allen said. “Our goal really is to change the dynamics of our food system in the city from less than 1 percent of local food to 10 percent.”

The local food movement isn’t a new one, but it has experienced recent popularity, said Margaret Mittelstadt, director of community relations for Milwaukee-based Outpost Natural Foods.

“What we’re seeing now as coops is again this return to cooperatives as a solution to some of the ills or some of the needs that aren’t being met in the community,” she said.

The cooperative grocery store was founded in 1970 by Milwaukeeans concerned about the increasingly large-scale and outbreak-prone food system. Outpost stocks as much local, natural and organic food as possible.

In the past 11 years, as its membership grew rapidly, Outpost has grown to three locations, Middlestadt said. There are now 16,000 coop share owners.

Farmers’ markets, like the East Town Farmers market held Tuesdays and Saturdays in Milwaukee’s Cathedral Square, put consumers in contact with the farmer who grew their food.

East Town has seen a 30-percent increase in seasonal vendors this year over 2010, said Emily Linn, marketing manager. There are about 40 farmers who participate in the East Town market at least occasionally and there have been a growing number of customers since 2009, she said.

Some consumers skip the marketplace and go straight to the source through Community Supported Agriculture programs.

A CSA allows people to buy shares of the grains, meat or produce from a particular farm. Each week, the participant receives a delivery of food from the CSA program.

At LotFotl – Living off the Fat of the Land – Community Farm in Elkhorn, CSA members can also work on the farm four hours each week in return for a food share, said owner Tim Huth.

LotFotl opened in 2006 and has four full-time employees, 12 worker share CSA members and about 260 paying CSA members. This year, Huth and helpers planted 16 acres of produce. There are also 21 Black Angus steer that will become beef and three hogs that will become bacon on the farm.

A full share is $675 per year, Huth said. He’s seen membership grow by about 60 members each year since he started the CSA.

Some Milwaukee chefs have also subscribed to the eat local movement, with farms such as LotFotl supplying ingredients through Restaurant Supported Agriculture programs.

Dan Sidner and Joe Muench are co-owners of both Maxie’s Southern Comfort, 6732 W. Fairview Ave. in Milwaukee, and Blue’s Egg, 317 N. 76th St in Milwaukee. Both restaurants use locally sourced ingredients when possible.

Using local food in a restaurant requires a different approach, Sidner said. Instead of making up a menu and then shopping for the ingredients, he and Muench determine which ingredients are available from area farmers and then create a menu.

While he does pay a premium for local, free-range eggs – about twice as much as grocery store eggs – Sidner said the freshness and reduced risk of food borne illnesses is worth it to him.

“These chickens live nice, happy lives and can produce eggs for years,” he said. “The whole thing makes a lot more sense.”

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