Sophie Bolich

Firefighters, Teens Are Growing Greens In Shuttered Fire Station

Hydroponic gardens located at fire stations throughout the city will provide more than 25 pounds of lettuce and herbs per month.

By - Aug 11th, 2023 01:53 pm
Andre Lee Ellis addresses reporters at a Friday morning press conference. Photo taken Aug. 11, 2023 by Sophie Bolich.

Andre Lee Ellis addresses reporters at a press conference. Photo taken Aug. 11, 2023 by Sophie Bolich.

Although they’re usually found riding around in bright red trucks, members of the Milwaukee Fire Department (MFD) will soon be recognized for their green thumbs.

MFD, in partnership with Community Agricultural Growing Experiences (CAGE) and Fork Farms, hosted a press conference Friday morning to introduce Gardens for First Responders. The pilot program uses compact, hydroponic gardens, dubbed Flex Farms, to grow fresh greens for community distribution.

“When you make fresh food accessible, you put yourself in a position to address issues of food and nutrition insecurity and help people eat better,” said Michael Hostad, executive vice president of social innovation at Fork Farms.

The Green Bay-based company manufactures Flex Farms, which are roughly the size of a refrigerator and provide upwards of 25 pounds of fresh greens per month.

“We at Fork Farms feel strongly that will see long-lasting and impactful change in our communities as a result of this program,” Hostad said.

Four farms are in operation at Milwaukee Fire Station 5, 1313 W. Reservoir Ave. The station was deactivated in 2008, and now serves as a community health and wellness center.

Members of CAGE tend to the gardens, building employable skills and fostering positive relationships with fire responders. CAGE, led by Andre Lee Ellis, recruits Milwaukee youth — specifically Black boys and young men — to learn agricultural skills and receive mentorship through maintaining community gardens.

“It’s been said that Milwaukee is the worst city in America that you can raise a Black boy, Black child or Black family. I beg to differ on that,” Ellis said. “And that’s because we’re here. Some great people live and work here, and we have a very good track record for being a safe space where young, Black boys can come and hone their skills for growing.”

“I’m so grateful to the young men who wake up to be on time to come and do the work,” he added.

As the program grows, fire stations throughout the city will receive their own Flex Farms. Station 13, located in the Amani neighborhood and Station 36, in Garden Homes, are next in line. Bader Philanthropies contributed funding for the first two years of Gardens for First Responders.

Because of their relatively even distribution throughout the city, fire stations make an ideal site for the farms — especially in the pursuit of addressing food deserts, said Fire Chief Aaron Lipski.

“There are huge swathes of our city that encompass many of our vibrant communities that don’t have access to healthy leafy greens. And if it is accessible, there’s not a lot of it, or it’s very expensive,” said Lipski, who noted that Flex Farms will be “placed directly into the neighborhoods that need it most.”

In addition to distributing the greens via meal kits and donations to local nonprofits, participating fire stations plan to eventually incorporate the harvest into potluck dinners for the community.

“Anybody living needs this food,” Ellis said. “We give it not because of where you come from or how much you have, but who you belong to.”


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Categories: Food & Drink

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