Milwaukee a finalist for Bloomberg’s ‘Challenge’

A new idea will transform Milwaukee’s foreclosed homes and vacant lots into urban farms, community kitchens and food distribution centers. The idea has earned the city one of 20 finalist spots in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ “The Mayors Challenge.” Milwaukee was announced as a finalist on Nov. 5.

The Mayors Challenge is the latest initiative of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Project, which focuses on spreading ideas among cities.

Milwaukee’s proposal, titled HOME GR/OWN, will use vacant lots and foreclosed homes to bring healthy and easily accessible foods to communities.

According to the proposal, approximately 69 percent of Milwaukee residents do not eat enough healthy foods. Milwaukee is also home to approximately 3,700 foreclosed and vacant buildings

“We have a lot of homes, sadly, that have raze orders on them right now because of the foreclosure crisis,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said in a video made by the city for the challenge.

The Milwaukee Department of City Development has begun developing maps to identify the best properties for this project.

The Lindsay Heights neighborhood on the city’s north side is one of the hardest hit areas, according to Larry Adams, an advisory board member of the Walnut Way Conservation Corporation, a neighborhood organization and urban farm located in a former drug house in the neighborhood.

“It’s the hardest hit area as far as black male unemployment and as far as foreclosed and vacant properties,” Adams said in the video.

On Nov. 12, finalist cities will send teams to Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Bloomberg Ideas Camp, a two-day gathering in New York City where the finalists will refine their ideas.

Afterward, finalists will receive coaching to prepare their ideas for final submission in January 2013.

The competition was designed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in order to find and spread innovative local solutions to national problems.

In response, 305 cities submitted ideas, and 20 cities were chosen as finalists, from Boston to Phoenix.

Barrett initiated Tournavation, the competition for finding the most innovative idea in Milwaukee. Ten finalists of Tournavation were chosen on Sept. 7.

The team representing Milwaukee was the winner of that contest, HOME GR/OWN, which includes Matt Howard, director of Milwaukee’s Office of Environmental Sustainability, Sharon Adams, director of the Walnut Way Conservation Corpt, Sharon Robinson, director of administration for the City of Milwaukee and Maria Prioletta, redevelopment and special projects manager for the Department of City Development.

Growing Power is an organization focused on bringing healthy and fresh food to communities. Founder Will Allen said healthy and accessible food is important for all communities, rural and urban.

“Where there is vacant land, we are trying to think of ways we can get food out of it,” he said. “The increase in population and the decrease in accesible and healthy food is an issue in this country, and we need to take advantage of resources.”

Allen said the majority of people have unhealthy diets because they do not have access to fresh and healthy foods. He said creating urban farms is the best way to combat this problem.

Allen also said the problem with supposedly healthy foods is that they’re usually not fresh. He said someone could think they’re eating day-old broccoli when in reality it is more than 10 days old.

“Through the process of (packaging) and shipping, the food we eat loses a lot of its nutritional value,” he said. “(Urban farms) are good for people who don’t have access to healthy food. It’s important that urban areas (are self-sustainable) because we don’t even know what we’re eating.”

Winners will be announced in spring 2013, with a total of $9 million going to five cities to help jump-start their ideas.