With all the recent talk of tea parties, it’s very easy to lose track of the fact that there are many millions of people who are actively suffering from starvation and malnutrition in America today. Most—but not all—live in America’s cities. They’re even in the suburban pockets of plenty that strive to cloak the unwellness within. And they’re in the wide swaths of rural America as well. Have you heard the term “food desert” before? Look closely at it. The second word is “desert.” It’s an appropriate term. Food deserts are areas where people do not have access to good food, though unhealthy fast food (and liquor) is easily available.
Tonight, I saw part of Milwaukee’s food desert. It happened on the occasion of the fifth time that my daughter and I have attended the Daddy/Daughter Dance—we drove from an event at the well-off Unitarian society, up Van Buren Avenue, across the Holton Street bridge, and into Milwaukee’s sprawling north side food desert. That topic is something I’ve previously addressed on this blog: see my posts about the brief dispute over placing yet another fried chicken joint on North Avenue. (The plans were later scuttled.)
What I noticed this time was the big empty patch of land on 11th Street between North Avenue and Meinecke Ave. A second one is located a block over just on the east side of 10th Street. (Use Satellite view mode in Google Maps to see them.) When I see big empty lots like these, my mind itches with visions of big, bountiful community gardens that they could be made into.
Will Allen is the Milwaukeean who’s achieved fame and fortune through his work at Growing Power. While I don’t know if he coined the term food desert, it’s a very fitting term for what I saw driving around the north side en route to and from the dance. I saw liquor stores, six different varieties of fast food, and a few very small and tattered “grocery” stores that sold lottery tickets, snacky crap, and booze. There were very few options for getting relatively healthy and unprocessed food.
As I heard remarked earlier today, the high school where the dance took place was in an “unfortunate area.” Yes, that’s true. But things like that happen for a reason. In Milwaukee, there’s been the deliberate segregation of African-Americans in the mid-twentieth century, white flight in the 1950s onward to the 1990s, and deindustrialization from the 1970s to the 1990s. Some of those were deliberate, others symptoms of greater changes. While it’s useful to know the root causes of the current situation, one needs simply to survey Milwaukee’s north side via Google Maps satellite mode, or even more effectively, to drive through it. It’s a real-life food desert. Many things—the waking nightmare of many of Milwaukee’s schools, deep poverty, and accompanying crime—are directly related to it.
Making community gardens out of some of the vacant land in the city won’t solve all of these problems. But it can help.
For the sake of our city, and our larger community, We have to.