By Karen Herzog of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Vegetable stands lush with asparagus and salad greens are sprouting in corporate parking lots. Kohl’s Corp. is planting vegetable gardens to help the less fortunate. And City Hall next week will get its own version of the White House kitchen garden.
Nonprofit urban farm Growing Power is at the center of efforts by Milwaukee-area corporations to promote employee wellness through locally grown vegetables, and the move to transform high-profile green spaces in the city into vegetable gardens.
“Growing Power seems to be open to doing just about anything,” said Mary Hayden, manager of employee services for Rockwell Automation, which will have a seasonal Growing Power vegetable stand on Thursdays in its corporate headquarters parking lot near S. 1st St. and W. Greenfield Ave.
Employees at Aurora Sinai Medical Center, 945 N. 12th St., can buy fresh vegetables during their Wednesday lunch hours from a farm stand in the physicians’ parking lot, near the ambulance entrance. Growing Power, based at 5500 W. Silver Spring Drive, is running that farm stand, too.
“It’s the environment we’re in that makes it easier or harder for us to do the things we should do for our health,” said Janine Bamberger, manager of nutrition services and wellness programs for Aurora Sinai Medical Center.
Veggies next to hot dogs
The Growing Power stand at the hospital, set up from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Wednesdays, is side by side with the hospital’s outdoor summer grill area, which sells foot-long hot dogs and Italian sausages with chips and soda for $5.
“If (hospital staff) go out there for lunch, maybe they’ll be enticed by the fresh tomatoes and spinach, too,” Bamberger said this week. As five hospital employees waited in the line for hot dogs and sausages, one employee admired the Growing Power sprouts and spinach, picked the day before at Growing Power’s urban farm on the city’s northwest side.
“I bought green onions here last week that were phenomenal, and also asparagus that was very fresh,” said Judy Ploszaj, a biomedical electronics technician at Sinai, who dashed to the parking lot during her lunch hour Wednesday to buy salad greens, spinach and two red tomatoes.
“It’s extremely good quality and very cheap,” Ploszaj said of her veggie purchase. “It’s awesome to have this close to work. I hope it catches on elsewhere in Milwaukee.”
Rockwell Automation will welcome neighborhood residents who want to stop by its fresh produce stand from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays to buy asparagus, tomatoes, salad greens, farm-fresh eggs and whatever else Growing Power brings to the parking lot in the shadows of the Allen-Bradley clock tower, Hayden said.
“We’re not advertising it, but there aren’t any major supermarkets close by, and if our neighbors want to buy vegetables here, that’s fine with us,” Hayden said.
The Rockwell neighborhood, south of downtown, is a “food desert,” said Will Allen, founder and CEO of Growing Power. “They need more easy access to affordable vegetables around there.”
Compost was being delivered this week to two raised garden beds between the Zeidler Municipal Building and City Hall. The beds, which used to hold flowers, have been made taller to hold richly composted soil to grow vegetables, including peppers, tomatoes, broccoli and salad mix.
Youths employed by the city will tend the gardens. Some employees are calling it the mayor’s version of the White House vegetable garden, which first lady Michelle Obama is supervising.
Vegetables from the City Hall garden will be donated to food pantries, Growing Power said.
Kohl’s gets in the act
In Menomonee Falls, Kohl’s is teaming up with Growing Power to plant four vegetable gardens around the corporate office and its child care center.
Once harvested in mid-July, the bulk of those vegetables – green peppers, beans, cabbage, squash, salad greens, pumpkins and an expected 600 pounds of tomatoes – are to be donated to Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee, said Kristin Cunningham, a Kohl’s spokeswoman.
Throughout the summer, the gardens will serve as a teaching tool for kids at the child care center, Cunningham said. The kids will help Kohl’s employees water, weed, harvest and tend the plants. Each garden bed is to be refreshed annually with compost from Growing Power.
Growing Power also has a major corporate initiative going to collect precooked food waste – such as lettuce leaves, coffee grounds and eggshells – to turn into compost, the nutrient-rich soil that Growing Power uses for growing food.
Last year, Growing Power converted into compost 6 million pounds of food waste – from brewing waste to spoiled vegetables. Allen said Growing Power plans to triple that amount this year.
Rockwell donates precooked food waste from its corporate kitchen, as does Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., Allen said. Other companies, including Kohl’s and Aurora, are also planning to donate food waste to be turned into compost, he said.
So far, Growing Power doesn’t gather cooked food scraps from corporate cafeterias. But the food that doesn’t get eaten in corporate cafeterias also may be heading Growing Power’s way soon.
Growing Power plans to convert that food waste into methane gas, a renewable energy source.