Brigid McGeehan started selling her homegrown vegetables at the Fondy Farmers Market in 2011 after a 20-year career at Johnson Controls.

“I fell in love with it really. One of the things I really like (about the market) is the diversity of the customers. There is an opportunity to grow many things because of that diversity,” said McGeehan, who emigrated from Ireland in 1988.

One of many in the Fondy Food Center community who was surprised by executive director Young Kim’s recent departure after 13 years, McGeehan said Kim was a true leader who was able to form strong bonds with farmers and gain their respect.

Added Vang Lee, who helps his mother, Ying Vang Lee, a Hmong immigrant from Laos, farm in Milwaukee, “He fought for the community that we are serving to help the people consume a better diet for their health.”

Kim revitalized the Fondy Farmers Market and connected with neighborhood organizations and partners throughout the city, according to Venice Williams, executive director of Alice’s Garden and a vendor at the Fondy and Schlitz Park markets.

“He did a very good job of connecting food and health. I think that is going to be a huge part of his legacy. He made it clear that food justice strongly matters when you’re running a farmers market in an urban context,” Williams said.

In addition, Williams noted that Kim, a Korean American, always represented the concerns, voices and dignity of the farmers, who are predominantly Hmong immigrants, and their offspring.

Kim’s vision for Fondy was that it be more than just a farmers market. He worked to create a system for healthy food access, according to Laura Maker, chair of the Fondy Food Center board of directors.

“It was really a pleasure to work with Young and … we’re really going to miss him,” added Maker.

Jennifer Casey, a registered dietician, was named executive director of Fondy Food Center after Kim departed in late February. Casey coordinated the diabetes community health program at the Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center for seven years prior to becoming the development and communications director at Fondy in July 2014.

She has had a strong interest in the interaction between food and health since she was a young teen. “It was (at Ignace) that I began to see the opportunity to work with and through farmers markets to address health disparities,” Casey said. That insight led her to reach out to Kim and eventually join his team. Kim declined to be interviewed for this article.

“I respect (Kim) deeply for his ability to understand the cultures of the people in the neighborhoods,” Casey said. “He learned to appreciate the strengths and cultural assets of the residents … and he knew that solutions needed to come from within the community.

“His influence in the food movement here and nationally has been strong,” she added.

Preparing for summer

Now concluding its first year operating the Milwaukee County Winter Market, Fondy is gearing up for the summer season at its Port Washington farm and to open the Fondy Farmers Market and the Pop-Up Market @ Schlitz Park. The Fondy community also is working to grow its food justice initiative, the Milwaukee Farmers Market Connection.

Last July, Kim and Casey spearheaded the initiative, an effort to expand low-income residents’ access to healthy local produce beyond the North Side neighborhoods served by Fondy Farmers Market. Funded by the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Healthier Wisconsin Partnership Program, the Milwaukee Farmers Market Connection brings together farmers markets, nonprofits and individuals to facilitate low-income and diverse consumers’ access to the markets and increase their consumption of fresh produce.

Since then, 10 of Milwaukee’s 24 farmers markets have joined the coalition, said Casey, who believes that number will continue to grow. The program is also seeking partners outside of Milwaukee to expand statewide.

In addition to raising funds to augment Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, the coalition is working to make markets more inclusive by adding such things as foreign language materials and clearer price markers, Casey explained.

“One of the best ways to broaden your reach is to listen to what people need and want from you,” Casey said. She cited Fondy Market’s Seasonal Soul cooking demonstrations featuring pho, greens and barbeque cooking contests as an example of what shoppers requested.

Such efforts can also help the Milwaukee County Winter Market draw in low-income and diverse shoppers, which it has struggled to attract, Casey said.

For the second summer, Fondy will operate a weekly pop-up farmers market at Schlitz Park. This year, the mid-day market will be open on Tuesdays in conjunction with Schlitz Park’s Take-Out Tuesdays food truck gathering.

Fondy is continuing a wholesale program, started in 2014, that allows farmers at its Port Washington farm to sell their produce to the local grocery cooperative, Outpost Natural Foods. In its second year, sales almost doubled, Casey said.

On March 1, the Common Council approved up to $250,000 in repairs to the Fondy market, including painting, asphalt and electrical upgrades, new downspouts and replacing some wooden vendor counters. Casey expects that most of the repairs will be made in April.

An unpaid water bill and complaints of poor maintenance at the market led city officials to review the original 2001 lease for the city-owned property. In February, the lease was renegotiated, according to Martha Brown, deputy commissioner of the Department of City Development.

Because the market is so important to thousands of city residents, the city forgave the water bill and agreed to make repairs, explained Alderman Russell Stamper.

The Fondy Market will open on Saturdays beginning May 7 and expand to Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays on June 18.

Andrea Waxman

Originally published on the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service as Fondy Food Center looks ahead under new leadership