Gretchen Mead, Founder of Victory Gardens Initiative, Milwaukee
Gretchen Mead, Founder of Victory Gardens Initiative, Milwaukee - ©Victory Gardens Initiative

Victory Gardens Initiative

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Main actors

NGO / Philanthropy

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Project area

Whole City/Administrative Region

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Ongoing since 2009/05

Victory Gardens Initiative is a community organisation that supports a better food system by helping people grow their own food.

The Victory Gardens Initiative is a not-for-profit social enterprise, with a simple and powerful objective: to get as many people as possible growing their own food. Its mission is to "empower communities to grow food, reawakening our intimate relationship to human and food ecology, advancing a resilient food culture: from soil, to seed, to plate, to soil. When everyone is a farmer, we will have a socially and environmentally just food system.".

VGI was established in 2008 around the idea of recovering the tradition of the World War II 'Victory Gardens', when the US suburban population was mobilised en masse to turn their lawns into food gardens as part of the war effort. Hence VGI's slogan: "This is a grassroots movement. Move grass, grow food!"
In six years, it has captured the imagination of thousands of Milwaukee residents, with over 1500 edible gardens established, a small army of volunteers and mentors in place to support them, and networks of urban orchards, permaculture teachers and food leaders trained around the city. 

Sustainable Development Goals

End hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
Reduce inequality within and among countries
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
Milwaukee, United States

Size and population development
City of Milwaukee: approx. 600,000; Metropolitan area: 1.57 million

Population composition
27,1% of the population are persons under 18 years (as of 2010); ethnically mixed city

Main industries / business
Centre for manufacturing and food processing; centre of printing and publishing

Sources for city budget
Principal sources of the budget are property taxes and a share of State government revenue (which has fallen in the past two decades), with other sources including user fees and levies.

Political structure
Mayor and 15 elected Councillors with a four-year term, each serving a district of approximately 40,000 residents.

Milwaukee, like many other parts of the United States, has been very hard hit by the home foreclosure crisis that has been unfolding since the housing market peaked in 2007. With the advent of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and the resulting sharp rise in unemployment in many parts of the country, the capacity of many homeowners to continue to finance their mortgages has declined rapidly. Homes are both foreclosed and abandoned, and since the City of Milwaukee is the first creditor in line in cases where property taxes are unpaid, this has left the municipal government with a large reserve of foreclosed homes and vacant lots, where foreclosed and / or abandoned houses have been demolished. This spatial phenomenon is concentrated in socioeconomically deprived areas of the city’s inner north, and the population most affected is African American. 

Victory Gardens Initiative founder Gretchen Mead was motivated initially by the realisation of the fragility of her city and its inhabitants owing to its dependence on oil:
"I’d recently started growing my own food, and decided I want to have this group called Victory Gardens Initiative. Then I met people from Transition Milwaukee, and learnt more about Peak Oil, in 2008. A lot of people were reading about Peak Oil and freaking out. That’s when it really started to sink in, I was somewhere high up, looking down at Milwaukee, and realised that it was all oil, the whole thing. I felt, I’m here because of oil, our population has soared, our resources have soared, our control over the environment soared…It was a profound moment, and I had a feeling that this is a big phony world. This isn’t real, it’s so temporary, we’re in a tiny little window of existence, that we think the whole foundation of existence is, but it’s only a blip in history.Then I started to get serious about getting people to grow their own food. I worked with folks from Transition Milwaukee to plan the first blitz."
VGI's objectives are expressed, with reference to the origins of the World War II Victory Gardens, and in light of the severe food security and poverty challenges facing the City of Milwaukee:
"We are fighting for food security and the health of our ecosystems. We are fighting for resilient communities that support one another and for strong local economies.  Through gardening we are seeking a connection to the cycle of life, and for good, tasty food…from garden to plate."

The core of the Victory Gardens Initiative is the Backyard Blitz, which commenced with 34 gardens in 2009, and has grown to nearly 550 gardens over a two-week period in May, 2014. Over 250 volunteers are mobilised, in a logistical feat that spans much of the year. Materials (soil, compost, seedlings, sleepers for raised beds) needs to be sourced; transport needs to be organised, volunteers need to be matched up with gardeners, sponsorships and funding needs to be sought to support low-income families to participate, payment needs to be obtained from those families and individuals who can pay, and so on. Once the gardens are established, support mechanisms are put in place with regular training days, a system of garden mentors, and education programs involving food leaders and permaculture design skills. A key focus is work with schools, with a showcase project being the establishment of the 1.5 acre Concordia Community Garden in the inner north area of Harambee, which is significantly affected by the foreclosure crisis. 

For 2013, Victory Gardens Initiative's revenue came from the following sources ($US):
- Corporate Sponsorships: 38,480  
- Donations: 55,530 
- Grants: 70,144  
- Memberships: 1,899 
- Program Revenue: 49,070  
- Contracted Work: 10,617 
- Special Events: 13,233 
- Interest & Miscellaneous: 590 
Total: 239,563
Its expenses were $213,233 leaving a surplus of $26,330

Victory Gardens Initiative has established over 1500 edible raised gardens (4 ft x 8 ft) since 2009, working with a team of hundreds of volunteers. They have created over a dozen urban food orchards, and trained dozens of permaculture gardeners and food leaders. They have established partnerships and collaborations with local business and community leaders, churches, schools, philanthropic foundations and the city government. Victory Gardens Initiative's success in mobilising communities around food growing in the urban context has inspired other communities and the US abroad to seek to emulate their work. It has also inspired the City of Milwaukee with its HomeGrown initiative, utilising urban agriculture as a means to achieve urban renewal, which is the subject of a separate case study. 


There are complications working with large teams of volunteers, as Gretchen explains: 

"The size of the volunteer teams varies a lot. It depends on who wants to work with whom, who has tools, who shows up with cars…We plan ahead of time, but we need to be flexible on the day, because you also never know how many people are going to show up, because volunteers can be unreliable. And I always tell people, be prepared for chaos, it’s never going to work out as smoothly as you might think…We have a lot of volunteers, though they’re not always consistent."

A key lesson is that the passion, vision and commitment of one individual can achieve remarkable results. The Victory Gardens Initiative is the creation of Gretchen Mead and her leadership and enthusiasm has been central to its success. Her capacity to build partnerships and collaborations across the community, business, non-profit and government sectors is highly regarded. The Victory Gardens Initiative has demonstrated that bringing communities together to address a critical social need can have transformative results.

The Victory Gardens Initiative model is directly transferable to other urban contexts in the US and beyond. It is especially relevant to cities in the US affected by urban decline and depopulation, which are experiencing a food desert phenomenon and high levels of food poverty and insecurity. That said, it is not something that can be directly imposed 'from above'; this sort of response has to come from local people who are motivated to take action of this form to meet pressing social needs. 

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Nick Rose
Melbourne , Australia

Nick Rose

Individual | Food Systems Coordinator, Sustain: The Australian Food Network

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