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Vertical Farming in Fire Station Helps Combat Food Insecurity
Wisconsin Ag Connection - 08/17/2023

An unconventional partnership between firefighters and farms hopes to bring fresh produce to food deserts in Milwaukee.

The Gardens for First Responders program has had a vegetable garden at one Milwaukee Fire Department station for about two years. Now, the program is adding a hydroponic vertical garden at Fire Station #5 to grow fresh produce year round.

Leafy greens and fresh herbs grown in four cylindrical towers will feed families in the neighborhood. The fire department launched the initiative along with Community Agricultural Growing Experiences, or CAGE, and the hydroponic gardening systems company Fork Farms to combat food insecurity.

Food insecurity is a way to describe people who lack access to fresh food, and in extreme cases, have to eat less food to make ends meet. Barriers to food can include distance from a healthy grocery store, money to buy fresh food and insufficient equipment to prepare or store produce.

Andre’ Lee Ellis is the founder of CAGE. He wanted to do his part in solving food insecurity.

"I knew that our community needed growth. I knew that we had food deserts and I knew that the people on the bottom needed to eat better," Ellis said.

Two years ago, he planted a garden next to the non-operational fire house with the support of Milwaukee Fire Chief Aaron Lipske. Now there are four growing towers in the firehouse. Together, the towers are expected to grow 100 pounds of food each month. That’s in addition to the traditional garden next door.

Both gardens are maintained by CAGE, which also trains Milwaukee youth to work in the gardens.

The project, funded by a grant from Bader Philanthropies, aims to add vertical farms to four more fire stations within the next two years.

Jace Perry is a 16-year-old high school student who has been gardening at the firehouse six days a week for a year. Perry said working with people like Ellis has taught him the benefits of working in a garden. And, he said, it’s peaceful.

"You hear birds chirping, flowers blooming, stuff like that. It’s also so nice to hear if you are stressed out or anything like that," Perry said.

Many areas of Milwaukee are food deserts — meaning residents do not live within walking distance of a grocery store. According to a report by the city, grocery stores are disappearing from Milwaukee. Big name grocery stores are reluctant to build grocery stores in low income areas where the need is greater. Instead, those areas are often served by convenience and corner stores, only half of which carry fresh produce.


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