Milwaukee church takes initiative to conquer a food desert in its neighborhood.In August 2016, the neighborhood surrounding The Embassy Center MKE erupted in civil unrest. The church — then known as Parklawn Assembly of God — is located in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood, three blocks from where 23-year-old Sylville Smith died in a fatal police shooting.
As protests, vandalism, and looting rocked Sherman Park, the church responded by meeting with upset local residents.
“We listened to the community, lamented their pain, and learned from them,” says Walter F. Harvey, who served as pastor of The Embassy Center MKE from 1992 to 2020. “That led to a change within the church. We started unleashing ordinary people to use business as a tool for justice.” Harvey, 62, now is president of the AG’s National Black Fellowship.
In response to community concerns, The Embassy Center MKE founded Prism Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization working to foster economic growth in Sherman Park. A critical part of addressing neighborhood concerns involved seeking solutions for investment in commercial property.
Enter Maurice D. Wince, a local real estate developer and an adherent of The Embassy Center MKE. Wince, instrumental in Prism EDC’s founding, serves as a board member.
“After the civil unrest, The Embassy Center continued to have community listening sessions,” says Wince, 53. “Through those, we recognized that there were several issues in the community, including the need for business opportunities and affordable housing. We also became aware that there was a food desert right outside the church’s doors.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as an area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. This is of particular concern in low-access neighborhoods like Sherman Park because residents often experience barriers to leaving the neighborhood to buy fresh, affordable food. Barriers to access means residents must rely on convenience stores that typically carry less wholesome food options.
“There were no fresh fruits and vegetables available within a two-mile radius in Sherman Park,” says Wince.
Wince saw an opportunity to address one of Sherman Park’s most pressing needs. Wince and his wife, Yashica, owned and leased retail space to a day care in Sherman Park, but when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the center, the Winces decided to open a grocery store in its place.
They worked with community leaders and received funds from the city of Milwaukee to open Sherman Park Grocery Store in July 2022.
“Within its first month of operation, the store reached 3,875 out of 40,000 households in Sherman Park, just shy of 10% of the households in the neighborhood, according to Wince.
An important component of Sherman Park Grocery Store is Feed My Sheep Ministries, which Wince operates within the store. Feed My Sheep provides gift cards of up to $50 for people who might come up short of funds at the cash register.
Sherman Park Grocery Store also supplies UpStart Kitchen, a business that provides opportunities to local culinary artists. Many of UpStart Kitchen’s culinary artists sell their goods at Sherman Park Grocery Store. UpStart Kitchen is a program of Prism EDC.
“The economic ecosystem that we have here has created synergy that has put the ‘neighbor’ back in ‘the hood,’” says Wince.