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Food is Free MKE pantry reopens with same mission but new model

Food is Free MKE
Posted at 6:10 PM, Jun 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-08 09:03:04-04

MILWAUKEE — After a setback, Emma Toth from Milwaukee, is back on her mission to promote food justice and healthy produce access to her Sherman Park neighborhood.


Back in 2019, Toth started Food is Free MKE in Sherman Park. Her goal was to give anyone in her Sherman Park neighborhood (and beyond) the ability to get healthy and fresh produce for free. She operated it out of her backyard. It started in 2019 and then exploded in popularity. At its peak, around 20 groups of people were coming every hour - not just individuals, but groups and families. With her Ring doorbell camera, she was able to see that a steady stream of people even came between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.

"It's a problem when the healthy foods costs more than the unhealthy foods, and we're kind of here to show that when were given good choices, we will make good choices," Toth said during aninterview with TMJ4 back in August 2020.

Food is Free MKE
Before and after photos of what the Food is Free MKE pantry looked like at the start versus toward its peak.

It wasn't just popular among people who needed food. Toth got an outpouring of support from the community who donated, food, clothes, time, and expertise.

It went from a table with a few pieces of food to her building, a pantry with various cupboards and installing a refrigerator behind her house. She was getting food donations almost faster than she could handle. However, as fast the food was coming, people were grabbing it. It became clear that there was a need for this type of food pantry in Sherman Park.

"If I go inside for five minutes, I come out to a new donation or an empty shelf. It's constant, and that goes all the way through the night," Toth said in a follow up interview in November 2020.


However, as the pantry got bigger and more popular, that brought extra attention to Food is Free MKE. Eventually, the city took notice of what Toth was doing. In a series of unfortunate events Toth had to shut her pantry down.

"I spent thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours, and every resource I had trying to mitigate the concerns of my neighbors," she said.

In the end, the city said that she was violating two zoning codes. The first was that she violated a food distribution zoning violation. The second was a social service zoning violation.

Food is Free MKE reopens

"The pantry, as it was, was a social service facility, and social service facilities can only operate in certain zoned districts. I don’t live in one of those. I live in a zoning district where only residential uses of property can exist," she shared.

So, she was forced to shut down. That hurt her. Not just because of the time and money she put behind the project, but because of the people who would suffer. She had created awareness of the issue and now all that exposure was gone.

"It felt like we created a community with so much visibility and then at the drop of a hat overnight all of these people were invisible again."


Food is Free shut down on July 28th, 2021. Now, almost a year later, Toth is making a come back. The mission to give neighbors access to fresh produce remains the same. However, she is doing it in a new way. Neighbors can come pick food from her garden.

"We just have reverted back to a more neighborly vibe. I’m outside working in the garden, and you see me come on into the garden, and pick whatever is available."

The city said doing that is completely fine. So, she is still giving out free food, however, she won't be accepting food or clothing donations like she used to.

Food is Free MKE
The backyard garden is full of squash, berries, sunflowers, tomatoes, and more vegetables that people will be able to pick for themsevles.

In addition to giving fresh food from her garden, Toth also has seeds and plants she wants people to take so they can start their own garden.

"You can literally take a tiny little seed and grow it into a huge garden, and that’s the independence that we’re seeking.”

It's still early in the season, so the whole garden isn't ready for picking. However, she has a few raised planter boxes in the front of her house that anyone can walk up to and harvest from.

"Take Food is Free back to the roots, back to the way it was intended, which is a collection of residential urban gardens who grow food fresh, local, organic produce just to give away to their neighbors," Toth said.

Food is Free MKE
It's still early in the season, so the majority of the garden isn't ready for picking. However, people will be able to come in a few weeks.

It's not just food for humans either. Toth has created multiple sections in her garden specifically for pollinators. After all, it's important to take care of the animals that take care of us too.

You can come by the front garden any time of day or night. Or if you want to go to the back garden, you can reach out to her via the Food is Free Facebook page to schedule an appointment.

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