Victory Gardens Initiative
NGO / Philanthropy
Whole City/Administrative Region
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.".
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.
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.
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:
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.