Creating an ecosystem of healthy food and entrepreneurship

Cultivating health

When 15-year-old Natalia Davis started her summer internship, she never thought it would turn into an opportunity to become an urban farmer.

This farm, located in the heart of Milwaukee in the Sherman Park neighborhood, features rows of hydroponic machines growing a multitude of plants and herbs: Everything from mint to red butter lettuce.

“Planting all of this is really cool and it gives me a really amazing feeling,” Natalia said.

It’s all part of a program called Cultivate — an entire ecosystem in Sherman Park, connecting food security, community and employment for a primarily Black neighborhood that has been long underserved. The UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Wisconsin supports this work – and these summer students – through an $80,000 grant to further the mission. 

Here's how it works

Cultivate, led by Jason Mims, gives high school students an opportunity to grow plants in a hydroponic system by Fork Farms, harvest them and prepare them for purchase. The students learn entrepreneurial skills, plus marketing and personal finance through the process.

“We want them to identify their gifts and talents and passions and see the value that it can have,” Jason said.

The Cultivate students then sell what they harvest to Sherman Park Grocery, right across the street, which is run by Maurice Wince and his wife Yashica Spears. The students can also sell their herbs, infused water and produce to local food entrepreneurs and food truck operators who use Upstart Kitchen, another nonprofit next door.

The grocery store fills an important gap for food access in Sherman Park, a long-standing food desert. The options for healthier food in the neighborhood have been less than ideal, with many people relying solely on food available at gas stations or convenience stores. Maurice had a vision to have the grocery store serve as an anchor for the community.

“Our kids need apples and oranges and fresh fruits and vegetables so that we can curve childhood diabetes, cholesterol, heart disease and so many other health ailments that our children and our neighbors faced in this community,” he said.

For UnitedHealthcare, supporting these organizations means investing in the long-term health of a community that has been, for a large part of its history, disenfranchised.

“What we want to be able to do is say, ‘Can we make investments today that are going to be sustainable and ongoing in the future?’” said Kevin Moore, CEO of the UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Wisconsin. “So it's developing this momentum that I think is going to be critically important to not only help with the health today, but to think about generational health and community health into the future.”

For the students, the Cultivate program means camaraderie with other students with similar interests, but also giving back to the community where they live.

“Their voice matters,” Jason said. “And the talents and gifts and passions that they have inside of them have a value. And now they can identify that value and take that and make an impact in not only this community, but the next that they're called to be.”

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