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Alexa Brill ’18 (left) and Alex Smith ’15, in consultation at The Farmory.

Food for Thought

Student researchers are playing key roles in one grad’s creative effort to provide urban residents with improved access to healthy food

At first glance, Green Bay would seem to be immune from the sort of healthy food-access issues more commonly found in bigger cities. Major grocery retailers are plentiful around the perimeter of the city, but therein lies the challenge: Residents of inner-city neighborhoods exist in what has become a food desert, where unhealthy, processed foods are often the only available choices.

An aggressive initiative by NeighborWorks Green Bay, a nonprofit organization focused on sustainable community development, aims to improve that situation by developing an urban farm – what it is calling a Farmory – in a long-vacant former armory building on the city’s east side. A series of St. Norbert College connections is helping move the effort toward fruition.

Twice the benefits
NeighborWorks Green Bay, which primarily focuses on housing renovations in older neighborhoods, bought office space in 2002 at 437 S. Jackson St. and a nearby former armory building at 815 Chicago St. Its initial plans to convert the armory into condominiums never materialized, and the building sat unused until the urban farm idea took root.

The Farmory now houses an aquaponics system that combines yellow perch production with a year-round vertical farming operation. The system eventually will be capable of producing 173,000 pounds of mixed greens per year. The closed-loop system uses fish waste as fertilizer for composting operations and 95 percent of the water used is recycled via pumps after filtering through the plants.

“We currently have one aquaponics system, but we envision as many as 50 systems down the road,” says Alex Smith ’15, Farmory program director for NeighborWorks. “When we started doing community outreach a year ago, most people didn’t know who we are. Now, more people know about us and we are in the middle of a $3.4 million fundraising campaign.” The multitiered aquaponics system uses gravity to run waste-filled water through the natural growth cycles of lettuce, spinach and other greens. The system fertilizes the plants while cleaning the water for reuse in the fish tank. The long-term goal is to have a storefront for local residents as well as supply agreements with area restaurants for the perch and greens. The Cannery Public Market in the Broadway District is one early customer.

Raising yellow perch populations for Friday-night fish fries at area restaurants is another potential revenue stream for the operation. Perch hatchlings are difficult to obtain and tricky to raise. The Farmory is working with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee fish-science program to build a sustainable fish hatchery. The Farmory has successfully progressed from two trial families of 130 fish apiece to a maxed-out population of 600 fish in its 700-gallon tank.

Student research makes the case
NeighborWorks Green Bay was early in its fundraising stage during the fall of 2016 when it tapped St. Norbert College for assistance in conducting an economic impact study that would help build the case for donors. Marc Schaffer (Economics) and Jade Rohloff ’17 set to work compiling evidence to show how important the Farmory would be for local communities from an economic perspective.

A subsequent brainstorming session led Smith to suggest the St. Norbert team take a look at food insecurity in the Farmory’s neighborhood. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, food insecurity refers to reduced access to quality, variety or desirability of diet. Hunger is a condition that may result from food insecurity.

“The key word there is ‘access.’ People who live there may only have access to unhealthy, processed foods,” Schaffer explains. “Food insecurity tends to be focused on lower-income demographics. It also brings about obesity issues, which are common in low-income areas.”

Schaffer, who directs the college’s Center for Business & Economic Analysis (CBEA), assigned the project to Alexa Brill ’18, a research analyst with the center. The CBEA serves as a link between the Donald J. Schneider School of Business & Economics and the local business community, providing students an opportunity to hone their skills with real-world application.

Brill looked at the food insecurity issue through two essential lenses: What is food insecurity in general? And, what’s happening regionally and within the Brown County area? Her research revealed a shortage of healthy food access within walking distance of the Farmory and low average spending on produce by area residents.

“Alexa did all the work,” Schaffer says. “She made the case that the Farmory lies in an area that experiences higher instances of food insecurity.”

NeighborWorks is using Brill’s work as the basis for personal fundraising efforts to supplement grant requests and crowdfunding initiatives. The success of the Farmory’s yellow perch and mixed-greens production efforts are the organization’s most effective sales pitch. The fact that the Farmory building itself happens to sit in the middle of such an at-risk area is a bonus.

“This research report allows us to back up everything we’ve been hearing from the community,” Smith says. “Alexa put it in a very visual and concise way so when we put together a package for potential donors, they can see how important food insecurity in the Green Bay area really is.”


From the ground up
Alexa Brill ’18 had to start with the basics when she was assigned the task of researching potential food insecurity issues in the middle of Green Bay for NeighborWorks Green Bay. That included finding out what exactly food insecurity even means.

Brill’s task as a research analyst with the Center for Business & Economic Analysis (CBEA) was to quantify whether inner-city Green Bay residents had convenient access to healthy food options. Her report would be used as the basis for fundraising efforts to support NeighborWorks’ Farmory operations, a combined yellow perch and mixed-greens aquaponics facility housed in a former armory building.

“I started looking at the USDA website, because that’s where all of the other nonprofit organizations are that work with food,” recalls Brill, who is double-majoring in sociology and economics, with aspirations of a career in higher education. “It helped me understand what the Farmory is doing, but it’s also doing so much more than just providing food. It’s like teaching a man how to fish rather than giving him a fish.”

Drawing a walking-distance radius around the Farmory also happened to match the area of Green Bay most in need of access to healthy food options. Brill met with CBEA director Marc Schaffer (Economics) to discuss where to find the appropriate data and build a case for what she thought would tell the best story.

“It was kind of my baby after that, which was really neat,” Brill says. “I needed to tell this story in a way that everyday people could understand. This is a serious issue, and the numbers spoke for themselves in that regard.”

Brill admits she knew little about food insecurity prior to embarking on her research efforts. She discovered it was much more prevalent than she imagined.

“Any area is big enough or small enough to have food insecurity as an issue,” she states. “You can’t really hide from it.”

Nov. 10, 2017