Urban Spelunking: Hunger Task Force's The Farm
In Franklin, just across 68th Street from the House of Correction there's a barn.
Built in 1946, it's one heck of a barn. It's got a beautiful gabled roof that, from the peak, slopes down both sides, ending with a bit of a flip – like a 1940s hairdo – near the bottom.
This attractive red and white marker of a rural Milwaukee past stands in stark contrast to the low, modern, blandness of the jail – and its ominous razor-wire fences – across the street. But the history of the two are intertwined.
For decades, the farm was a source of work for inmates and a source of food for them – as well as for the county hospital, too. Men would come across the street and tend the fields, planting, weeding, harvesting.
A day of work outside in the fresh air was one less behind bars. Actually, it was two fewer, because a day of work also earned a prisoner a day off his sentence. And it paid.
Now, The Farm – capital T and capital F – is run by the Hunger Task Force and it is used to provide fresh produce to area food pantries, and to educate Milwaukee children in farming, nutrition and healthful cooking.
"A hundred percent of the food is delivered absolutely free of charge to local food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and senior centers," Hunger Task Force executive director Sherrie Tussler tells me as we survey the fields from the back of an open farm ATV.
The 200-acre farm was once a farmstead established by Englishman Edmund Carman, who arrived in 1837 and farmed 160 acres. The Carman family cemetery sits behind a white picket fence on the farm today and still contains about a dozen stones, may obscured by tall grass. The graveyard was designated a landmark in 1982.
The education of Milwaukee Public Schools students is another function of the farm. Food from the farm and the 28-bed nutrition garden that sits out in front of the old creamery building goes to the Summer Meals program. During the school year, the Hunger Task Force's nutritionist Amanda Haar works with kids from five MPS schools, including Gaenslen and 53rd Street Schools.
The kids come out to plant, tend and harvest the garden. Then they step inside the former creamery, which connects to that gorgeous dairy barn – which itself houses a fish hatchery that helps supply fish to county parks ponds and has a sweeping hayloft.
In a modern home ec-style kitchen, the children use the produce they've grown to learn to make simple, healthful dishes that they make at home.
"Our experience has been that kids haven't had experience with gardening," says Tussler. "They don't know plant structures. They go to water something and they water the leaves rather than the roots. They can't tell one vegetable from another.
"The whole process is to grow the food, which we later take them into the kitchen and teach them how to eat. So they get to see it from the very beginning where it's just seeds all the way through, then they learn to recognize a tomato from a cucumber and cabbage."
Students come out to the farm every two weeks from April through October, but Haar also spends a lot of time at the schools.
When the kids come out, they also check out the pack of goats that helps keep the grass down on parts of the farm – which this year is growing corn, green peppers, asparagus, tomatoes, squash, apples, pears and other fruits and vegetables – and they check out the oak savanna that Hunger Task Force is restoring on the property.
"We have a natural areas guy on staff who will take the kids after they've done work in the kitchen and in the garden and walk through the oak savanna and do some plant recognition and some science stuff with them.
"So many of our kids are from the central city," says Tussler. "They don't know what Wisconsin used to look like. They don't know what farming is about. They don't know about agriculture. And they don't know wide-open spaces."
In the past, the farm had a fully functioning dairy operation, plus there were chickens and pigs. There was a slaughterhouse on the farm, too. But times have changed and these days the only farm animals on the land are those goats.
Changing times have also meant that the farm also relies heavily on volunteers. The day I visited a group from We Energies was harvesting corn.
Inmates from across the street still come over, just not as often.
"On days when we don't have volunteers and on days when we don't have kids here, we're able to allow inmates to come over and still work because they earn a day off their sentence if they work here," Tussler says. "Wouldn't you want to be out here right now instead of in there?"
Tussler likes to keep the relationship alive because she sees the value to the inmates, beyond sentence reduction.
"We support that and we want to be a part of it," she says. "It saves the taxpayers money and allows them to engage in restorative justice. And they're helping and often times when you talk to them, they're like, 'I really appreciate this because sometimes when I live back in the community, I need to visit a food pantry or have benefited from the food pantry in the past. Now I see the connection between the food that we're growing here and the food pantry.'"
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