A NEW approach to food in the region
By John McCracken
BROWN COUNTY – Northeast Wisconsin is home to numerous agricultural systems, and one community advocate is set on mapping these for stakeholders.
Amanda Chu, a sustainable garden and farm manager for NWTC and Brown County District 3 supervisor, is spearheading the Local Food Mapping Project.
It’s an initiative where buyers, sellers and members of the local food industry have defined roles as it relates to the local economy.
The local food map project is a digital map, which highlights a range of local food partners in the area.
It’s the undertaking of NEW Food Forum, a division of New Leaf Foods, a nonprofit connecting family farms, local government and consumers.
Chu said the forum is developing a charter for its members, in which topics such as food sovereignty, economic impact, land use and sustainability are being plotted.
She said the goal of the forum is to come to a consensus for all members of the Northeast Wisconsin food supply chain.
According to NEW Food Forum, the purpose of the mapping project is to connect people and organizations that produce local food with those that buy and distribute food within the local economy.
“The intention was to be a connection tool (for sellers and buyers), and it became an educational tool for everyone involved.” Chu said.
The mapping project has a growing list of organizations which fall into categories such as food recovery, policy and advocacy, farmers and growers, distributors and buyers.
Many of the organizations in the project fall into multiple categories.
Chu said when addressing local food needs, a food chain contains neighbors.
A local producer could sell produce to a hospital system, benefiting patients and the grower.
A local restaurant could donate food to an area food bank, feeding food-insecure people in the community.
One aspect Chu said she hopes will evolve with this project and future endeavors is a concentrated look at policy affecting food systems.
In the past year, the need for planning has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chu said Green Bay and Brown County don’t have an emergency food preparedness plan, so when pinches to the food chain occur, much like they did last spring and summer, there was a lot of scrambling from customers as local grocery stores were overwhelmed.
“A food policy council could do a lot of that work beforehand,” Chu said.
She said she looked at Dane County and Milwaukee, which both have food policy councils, to suggest policy recommendations to support the local food system.
Aquaponics on the rise
One member of the local food mapping project is helping residents raise fish in their own homes.
Claire Thompson is the executive director of The Farmory, an indoor agriculture nonprofit focused on growing sustainable food.
Inside of the 20,000-square-foot converted armory located on Chicago Street in Green Bay, tubs of yellow perch offer education and entrepreneurship to students of FarmoryWorks educational programs.
“Our mission is to educate people about sustainable agriculture and nutrition, and how people feed themselves, grow their job skills, and also create entrepreneurship opportunities,” Thompson said.
The Farmory is the only urban farm of its kind in Northeast Wisconsin and offers a wide range of tools for beginners to grow their own fish at home.
“We have all of the raw materials, skills and capacity here to be able to pivot from other sectors where folks may be struggling like dairy, for instance,” Thompson said.
She said the Farmory has clients who grow small schools in their basement, while others invest in high-end fish tanks and have started their own hatcheries.
“Aquaculture has become a really critical component for filling the demand for seafood,” Thompson said.
The Farmory offers multi-week programs for students to learn about the business side of aquaponics and the technical side of aquaculture.
On Feb. 4, FarmoryWorks graduated its first cohort of a dozen aquaculture technicians, from Kaukauna to Escanaba, Michigan.
The students graduated with skills focused on aquaculture and aquaponics while gaining experience working in a commercial hatchery.
Thompson said locally grown yellow perch are rarely available on a commercial scale, so these students could be on their way to saving the Friday night fish fry.
Bill West, president of the Wisconsin Aquaculture Association and owner of Blue Iris Fish Farm in Black Creek, said the majority of perch come from Toronto, the largest processor of perch on Lake Erie.
“The (yellow perch) population on Lake Michigan and Green Bay have been dwindling,” West said.
He said in the past 20 years, the majority of the market has gone to commercial fishing out of Canada, with a handful of local commercial fishers still in operation, such as Suamico Fish Company.
West said getting the perch population back is no easy task.
“People can’t produce perch unless someone else raises them from an egg and gets them feed-trained,” he said.
West said he estimates a small restaurant goes through around 6,200 perch in a week.
He sold more than 1 million perch eggs to The Farmory last year in hopes to stabilize the perch population.
“Every year that we don’t get on the stick, consumers get accustomed to eating something else,” West said.
The vegetables The Farmory grows onsite are for educational purposes, and The Farmory donates the produce to Paul’s Pantry and Grace Lutheran Church’s food pantry.
Craig Robbins, Paul’s Pantry executive director, said the fresh produce from The Farmory is a relief in the colder months when fresh donations tend to dry up.
“It’s nice to have locally sourced, nutritious food distributed to those in need in our community,” said Robbins.
Paul’s Pantry serves 125 food-insecure households a day, five days a week and it receives monthly donations of aquaponic lettuce from The Farmory.