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For some, repairing the world begins in the garden
March 12th, 2009
Though it has always been so, tikkun olam, repairing the world, seems, these days, like a particularly arduous task. Just ask President Obama.
Nevertheless, many Milwaukee Jews are devoting themselves to tikkun olam — some of them through gardening and the “urban agriculture” movement.
Milwaukee native Anna Rickards, a 2007 graduate of Oberlin College, works at Growing Power, Inc., a Milwaukee non-profit that has emerged as a national leader in the urban agriculture movement.
Anna Rickards in a greenhouse at Growing Power, where she is harvesting arugula.
Founded by Will Allen, Growing Power on its Web site describes its goals as “to grow food, to grow minds, and to grow community.”
Located at 5500 W. Silver Spring Dr., in a blighted area of the city, Growing Power grows produce (herbs, salad mix, beet greens, arugula, mustards, seedlings, sunflower and radish sprouts). It also produces livestock, including laying hens and ducks, goats, rabbits, and turkeys.
Its facilities contain hydroponic systems where it raises fish (tilapia and perch) and an apiary with five beehives. It also produces more than 50 bins of red wriggler worms.
It has a large plot of land on which the first stage of the organization’s composting operation is located, including 30 pallet compost systems and an anaerobic digester to produce energy from the farm’s food waste. It also has a small retail store to sell produce, meat, worm castings, and compost to the community.
“This historic two-acre farm is the last remaining farm and greenhouse operation in the City of Milwaukee,” according to its Web site.
Allen, who owned the land, started the organization in 1993 when he designed a program that offered urban teens an opportunity to work at his store and renovate the greenhouses to grow food for their community.
“What started as a simple partnership to change the landscape of the north side of Milwaukee has blossomed into a national and global commitment to sustainable food systems,” Growing Power’s Web site says.
The center offers educational institutions, government agencies, farmers, activists, and community members opportunities to learn from and participate in the development and operation of Community Food Systems.
And its Community Food Center “provides space for hands-on activities, large-scale demonstration projects, and for growing a myriad of plants, vegetables, and herbs.”
Rickards, a biology major, said she and her older brother Lev, who attended Carlton College, got interested in farming as students at their colleges’ educational farms.
Lev worked for Growing Power’s Chicago facility some five years ago. Anna started by volunteering in Milwaukee. Last June she was hired to manage the organization’s Mitchell Street Farmers Market; at the end of the season she joined Growing Power’s marketing staff. She is also involved “in the harvesting, washing, prepping, and packaging of greens,” she said.
Rickards said that she was initially attracted to farming when she began to “see how our food industry was pretty unhealthy for the land, livestock and people.”
She is “interested in restructuring the food system to be healthier,” she said. And that tied into social justice when she observed, in Oberlin, “that there is an imbalance in who can afford to buy organic, fresh produce.”
So for Rickards an important part of the work that Growing Power does is that it “increases that access” to nutritious food.
Rickards has also worked with urban teens, at Oberlin and Growing Power, teaching them about farming and healthy food. When asked about capturing their interest, she explained that one way is to give them jobs.
“Teach them what hard work looks like. Kids in this neighborhood don’t have a lot of options for employment” so the opportunity to make money can pull them in. “But they won’t stay unless they buy in — it’s hard work, it’s smelly work,” she said.
The day Rickards spoke to The Chronicle, 25 students from Marshall Montessori High School were at the facility. They come two days each week, she said.
“We show kids it’s an actual, feasible career path. From out of this group maybe one will stay and volunteer, and five students might work here this summer,” she said.
Noting that she did not grow up eating organic food, she said she has enjoyed the opportunity to influence her parents in the direction of healthier eating.
Sisters Ilana and Naomi Lerman, 23 and 20 respectively, grew up in Glendale and at Congregation Shir Hadash. They, too, spend time working at Growing Power. Their interest in the land and in growing things is rooted in their childhood.
Ilana said she gardened with her father, David Lerman, as a child. Then, through her college major, she “started learning how trade works and how the economy exploits people around food and I wanted to understand how food is produced.”
Naomi said she was always in love with nature. “Grandpa [Philip Lerman] used to take me to [the Schlitz] Audubon Center,” she said. She held her bat mitzvah ceremony outside on land he owned north of Milwaukee.
Both girls went to the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn., to participate in Adamah: The Jewish Environmental Fellowship.
This three-month leadership training program for Jewish adults in their 20s integrates organic farming, sustainable living, Jewish learning, community building and contemplative spiritual practice.
Naomi Lerman mixing clay, sand and straw to help construct a building at Adamah last fall.
Ilana learned a lot about how food works and its value in Jewish culture there, she said. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, where she created an interdisciplinary major in geography, global studies and African American studies called “Power and Place,” Ilana spent another summer at Adamah.
Returning to Milwaukee in fall 2008, she felt “it was a prefect time” to learn and volunteer at Growing Power.
“I’m mostly moving things around [at Growing Power]. There is a lot of lugging compost and growing seeds.” But when the bees awaken from their winter dormant period, she will be working in the apiary, she said.
“Growing Power is great because it is in the city and it shows that you can grow food in urban areas,” Ilana said.
Naomi noted that the farm is located in a “food desert,” an area of the city with no grocery stores. The people who live in the area get lower prices at Growing Power, she said, and it donates a lot of food to homeless shelters.
“For me,” said Ilana, “growing food is closely connected to social justice. We can be healthier, and we can [opt out of] participating in this very exploitative system... If people don’t have a healthy, just food system its really hard” to have a just society.
Ilana plans to move to the East Coast in the future and pursue her interest in social justice work using movement and theater.
But she said, “No matter what I end up doing, I know I will be connected to the land and growing food. I’m very interested in working inside the Jewish community or organizing, as a Jew.”
Naomi works at Growing Power one day each week as part of an independent study she designed through the Conservation and Environmental Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where she is a sophomore.
She is focusing on composting at Growing Power. She said she is keeping a journal documenting everything that she does there in the hope of someday using the family land up north for farming, “hopefully with some Jewish connection.”
Another, more age-diverse group of Milwaukee Jews recently got involved in urban-agriculture-as-tikkun-olam through Congregation Shir Hadash.
Members of Congregation Shir Hadash, COA and the neighborhood pray together before lunch on the day they installed the garden at COA's Goldin Center last June. Photo courtesy of COA.
Last year, the Reconstructionist congregation adopted an ecology theme in connection with the Shemitah (Sabbatical) year, in which Jews are commanded to allow the land of Israel to rest.
According to congregant and social action committee member Max Samson, who spoke with The Chronicle in a telephone interview last week, the congregation undertook the building of a community produce garden on the property of COA’s Goldin Center on Burleigh St. in central Milwaukee.
COA is a non-profit organization for families and children. It provides camping and year-round programs including early education, after school and summer activities, adult education, and family and parenting programs as well as a childcare program.
Samson said the project fit into the ecology theme and also with “repairing our relations with our neighbors. We wanted to get involved with the community and we made sure all age congregants got involved.”
The congregants planned the project and then, on Shavuot in early June, installed three 20 X 5- or 6-foot raised garden beds.
“We had a great time putting the gardens in — we had a lunch, prayed and sang songs. I would guess there were about 60 people there,” Samson said. The group also weeded the center’s baseball diamond, planted their flower boxes and cleaned up their flowerbeds.
The Shir Hadash Social Action Committee sent a small group on alternate Sundays to weed and otherwise care for the garden, but Samson said they really weren’t needed as the kids at COA maintained the garden and a group of women in the neighborhood did the harvesting.
Area residents harvest vegetables from the COA Goldin Center garden. Photo courtesy of COA.
COA was able to run programs on eating healthy food and the garden produced so much food that they gave some away — leaving it on tables at the center for neighborhood residents to take. They also hosted dinners with the abundant harvest. “It was a great success,” Samson said.
Shir Hadash plans to return and help plant this year’s crop. “And we would like to do some research and install a rain barrel, and the kids will see how you capture water, and all that,” Samson said.
COA is thinking of establishing more educational programs around this project and maybe a community garden at their North Avenue facility.
“If COA decides to do that, we will go and help them put the garden in,” Samson said. If not, COA will help the congregation connect with the United Neighborhood Centers of Milwaukee so they can help other centers create gardens.