SHEBOYGAN – Imagine if Sheboygan had produce stands at bus stops, or if people bought more of their produce from local farmers than grocery stores. Imagine if people used more space in their own yards to grow vegetables, rather than grass.
If those ideas became reality, maybe food access wouldn’t be the problem it is for downtown residents like Betty Klub, who pays a neighbor $10 for rides to the store, or Stacey Childs, who said she gained 100 pounds because she can’t find nutritious food she can afford within walking distance.
Grocery stores have become scarce in downtown Sheboygan. There are no full-service stores within a mile’s walk of downtown, where many of the city’s elderly and people without vehicles live. Some would even consider it a food desert. But without buy-in from large grocers, city leaders say, Sheboygan will need to get creative to improve food access for its residents.
Common barriers to adequate food access are transportation and affordability. It’s about how easily someone can buy nutritious food within their budget.
“Insufficient.” That’s how Klub, who lives in the St. Nicholas Apartments on Huron Avenue described food access in downtown Sheboygan.
For Klub, the best transportation option for getting groceries is a ride from someone else. Since she often is paying $10 just to get to the from the store, she only goes every three weeks.
And when she shops, she fills her cart as much as she can, since she can’t guarantee the next time she will be able to shop with a car to transport her groceries home with her. In her apartment, she has an extra freezer that she tries to keep stocked to stretch out trips to the store.
Sheboygan has plenty of grocery stores on the west side of town that offer healthy and affordable meat, produce and pantry items. For someone with a car, it’s easy to get to these stores, but for someone without, it can be a struggle.
A new downtown grocery store is under construction and slated to open later this year, within walking distance for residents living in new apartment buildings and farther south near the river.
But for the people living on the north end of downtown — especially near the St. Nicholas Apartments and other low-income housing complexes where many people don’t have cars — it will still be nearly a mile-long walk.
Sheboygan Mayor Mike Vandersteen said the city did an updated grocery store study in 2019 so they could show companies there is a need in Sheboygan. The city reached out to a few different chains in the state, but no one was interested. If someone were interested in opening a grocery store downtown, Vandersteen said, the city would be aggressive in helping make that happen, and there are even loans the city could offer for job creation.
But for now, the city will need to look to other non-grocery store solutions. Many people in the food community believe the real solution is a multi-faceted approach using a combination of community gardens, farmers markets and other ways to access the produce already being grown right here.
One solution: Help the local farmers feed the community
Sheboygan County has almost 1,000 farms and almost 200,000 acres of farmland.
Much of that land is being used to grow food, and finding ways to get that food to local people would not only benefit those struggling with food access, but it could help farmers, too.
While there is room for improvement, there are already some ways to get locally grown produce into the fridges of residents. These existing options don’t involve a grocery store and don’t usually require a car — which is helpful for those without reliable transportation.
Community-supported agriculture, often referred to as CSAs, is one way for people to buy produce directly from a local farmer.
Old Plank Farm is one available CSA in Sheboygan. During the 20-week harvest season, members get a weekly box of fresh vegetables grown on the farm in Plymouth. The boxes can be picked up from the farm or other locations throughout the county. For people downtown, the closest pick-up location is Goodside Grocery.
In some parts of the county, like Kohler, Plymouth and Sheboygan Falls, the boxes can be delivered right to a person’s home.
Members can choose between a small and large weekly share. The small share costs $310 — $15.50 per week — and includes five to eight items each week. The large share is six to 10 items each week for $485 — or just over $24 per week.
The cost may still be a bit high for some people’s budgets, but the pick-up locations are closer than a grocery store for some downtown residents. If two smaller households, maybe with only one person each, shared a CSA, the price could be cut in half and still provide a reasonable amount of produce for each.
In addition to weekly produce shares, Springdale Farm in Plymouth offers a variety of add-ons for its CSA members. Every other week, a person could add a pound of mushrooms for $6 or a bag of greens, either chard or kale, for $5.
Springdale Farm has four pick up locations in Sheboygan: W1855 Echo Ct., 2220 N. Sixth St. and 1114 Carmen Ave. on Wednesdays and 811 N. Eighth St on Fridays.
Sheboygan also has a robust farmers market every Wednesday and Saturday from June to October in Fountain Park. The farmers market is run by the Sheboygan County Interfaith Organization and offers assistance programs for seniors and people who are low-income.
Eligible seniors can apply for $25 vouchers to be used at all participating farmers markets and roadside stands in Wisconsin. People on federal food assistance programs can use exchange money on their EBT card for wooden tokens that can be used to buy bread, eggs, meat, fish, dairy, honey, maple syrup and preserves.
With the Double Your Bucks Program through St. Nicholas Hospital, people on assistance programs can receive another $10 in fresh produce vouchers to buy fruit, vegetables and herbs.
These programs are great, but the farmers market is seasonal. There is a winter market, but the weather and growing seasons make it less robust than the summer.
Some communities across the country have experimented with bus stop farmers markets.
One of the biggest challenges with food access in Sheboygan is transportation, but many people who don’t have a car do live walking distance from a bus stop. Rather than paying for ride to the grocery store, like some residents do, a bus stop farmers market would be a walkable option.
This could be a good place for a local farmer to sell produce or even a local cheese company to sell bricks, slices or curds from a small cooler.
In Atlanta, the city’s transit agency partnered with local nonprofits to create produce stands at five different train stations. The mini markets serve different parts of the city with limited access, and each operates on a different day of the week.
The markets started in 2015 and over the years have had partnerships with a handful of local nonprofits. One partnership allowed them to offer some free pantry items to customers who bought produce.
Because the pandemic decreased the number of people commuting and taking public transportation, the past year has been somewhat of an outlier, but in 2019, Community Farmers Markets Director of Marketing Stephanie Luke said they averaged 1,000 customers per week across the five markets.
The produce markets aren’t the same as a full-service grocery store, but part of what makes them successful is that they are “offering people the food where they already are,” Luke said. Markets are open from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., making it easy for someone to pick up fresh fruit or vegetables on their way home.
Some infrastructure for the markets already existed because the stands are located inside train stops. The space is already covered from rain and other elements, so all they needed to add were refrigerated stands for the produce, another table for pantry items and an area for people to checkout.
The good thing about using transit stops, Luke said, is they are already strategically placed in areas where people need transportation. Plus, people already know and go to those spaces as part of their routines.
“They’ve done that research and development for us and we get to build off their work,” she said.
Sheboygan could recreate this at bus stops or at the Shoreline Metro Transfer Station. People would have to pay to take the bus to and from the transfer station, but that might be cheaper than taking the bus to a grocery store since, many people would need to transfer lines — which essentially doubles their fare costs.
If it were at the Transfer Station, people would still face the challenge of carrying groceries on the bus, but with cheaper transportation costs, they may be able to afford more frequent trips.
Community gardens can provide more food than you might think
Before the pandemic forced much of the world to hit pause, residents like former county supervisor Dawn Brulla and Executive Director of the Sheboygan County Food Bank Patrick Boyle were exploring ways to fill the gaps left by Save-A-Lot’s closure.
One idea was bringing a mobile market, like what Hunger Task Force uses in Milwaukee, to Sheboygan. A mobile market is a grocery store on wheels that can be parked in neighborhoods with limited access to food; however, Brulla said that seemed slightly too big for Sheboygan’s needs.
But Brulla said there may be a better way to improve food access that doesn’t involve such a big investment.
Home vegetable gardens are great for inspiring people to eat fresh vegetables and learn about their food, but if done on a bigger scale, gardens can help feed a community.
Ryan Laswell, program director at Nourish, a Sheboygan Falls-based nonprofit that provides education and access to local food, said a person could build a 4-by-8-foot garden bed — about the size of a twin bed — in their own yard and get 20 to 30 pounds over the course of a year.
With a $100 investment in supplies, Laswell said, people could grow $1,000 worth of food. Nourish has resources explaining when to start seeds inside and outside and other best practices for growing food, but the necessary supplies are minimal: soil, seeds, a tray if you are starting seeds inside, and maybe a heating mat.
The Mead Public Library has a seed library where people can get vegetable and flower seeds for free. There is a binder in the library and an online document with information on how to grow the different types of seeds.
Not everyone has the space to create a gardening bed in their yard, especially if they live downtown, but community gardens within walking distance can help with that.
Sheboygan already has community gardens next to Optimist Park, in the Gateway neighborhood and across from the Field of Dreams at the corner of Taylor Drive and Geele Avenue.
While those are a good start and some are used for food production, Laswell posed a scenario where every 20 or 30 lots there was one left undeveloped to be space for a garden. That scale could reduce reliance on a grocery store for produce.
Laswell and his wife, Sam, grow about 2,500 square feet worth of vegetables each year and have two greenhouses on their 0.65 acre property in the city of Sheboygan.
For them, urban farming is a passion, so they invest hundreds of dollars into it. But in return, they are constantly packing their fridge full of produce during harvest seasons and have plenty left to can or preserve another way for the winter.
Sam said someone could easily spend less money than they do and still grow enough to supplement their family’s need for a grocery store.
“You’d be amazed how much you can grow in a small space if you manage it efficiently,” she said.
Since the Laswells bought their property in 2012 and started their urban farm, Sacred Earth Urban Farm, some of their neighbors started growing vegetables of their own. Sam said one woman who lives nearby is growing just a few basic items like potatoes and kale. She brings her surplus over to share with the Laswells, and they offer some of their crops in return.
Some years, Sam said, they sell some of their vegetables to the public either through a self-serve stand out in front of their home or by people making appointments through their Facebook page. They didn’t sell last year because of COVID-19, but they hope to get back to it this year. A few weeks ago, they started seeds for about 1,200 plants in their greenhouses.
“If everyone had a little garden, the world would be a lot different,” she said.
This summer will be the ninth year for the Gateway Community Garden, developed by the Gateway Neighborhood Association and the city of Sheboygan after a body shop burned down leaving an undevelopable lot. Half of the funds to build the garden were raised by the neighborhood, and the city supplied water and fencing to the area.
Each year, the 19 beds are rented out to whoever wants to use them. Elaine Jacks, who lives in the neighborhood and keeps the garden running, said it varies from year to year, but last year she rented out 18 of the beds.
While they try to focus on people in the neighborhood — which is in the part of the city with the highest poverty rate — the beds can be rented out by anyone for $20 per year. The garden frequently has newcomers because most people only rent for a few years, but a few have been there for eight and nine years.
Jacks said the 4-by-8-foot bed could easily affect a family of four’s grocery bill. In her bed, she can fit 10 bean plants, 10 pea plants, four basil plants, two broccoli plants, two tomato plants and a zucchini plant.
Ninety-nine percent of what comes out of people’s plots is vegetables, she said. Like her, a lot of people grow tomatoes, but they also grow peppers, potatoes, carrots, greens and occasionally, corn.
Jacks likes the idea of community gardens to bolster food access, but there would need to be more of them to feed everyone struggling. She thinks the support from residents would be there for more gardens and there are vacant lots downtown that would be great for it — like the flat lot near Paradigm.
Reach AnnMarie Hilton at [email protected] or 920-242-3032. Follow her on Twitter at @hilton_annmarie.
This article originally appeared on Sheboygan Press: Another grocery store would help, but here are some other ideas to improve food access in downtown Sheboygan