In the late 19th century it was the settlement movement, pioneered by social reformers to alleviate conditions in poor urban areas. It took hold in Milwaukee in 1896, when the city’s first “settlement house” opened its doors to assist newly arrived European immigrants.
Now, in the early 21st century, a similar movement is afoot, and Milwaukee is turning to eight centers that uphold its historic settlement legacy and hoping they will help solve a modern-day ill.
The eight organizations are the heart of a new initiative to prevent childhood obesity. Led by the United Neighborhood Centers of Milwaukee (UNCOM), the effort is targeting policy and environmental changes that will make for a healthier city. In some of the most impacted local communities, where there are few places to buy fresh produce and less safe open space for play and exercise, the prevalence of childhood obesity and overweight hits 44 percent.
The initiative could reach more than 100,000 people, most of whom will be low-income African-American and Latino families from the central city. Milwaukee indeed has pockets of deep poverty; more than a third of all impoverished children in Wisconsin live here.
“This project has the potential to reach some of the most at-risk children in the city,” project director David Nelson said.
With funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, UNCOM and its partners in the project will try to expand land-use policies governing urban gardening and the amount of land dedicated to its use. They also will push for policies to increase nutritious offerings in snack and drink machines in schools and other settings, including in the eight settlement houses.
“We want to provide healthier vending snacks like pretzels and water instead of chips and soda,” Nelson said, adding that schools will be pressed to serve healthier foods in the cafeteria lunch line as well.
Lastly, through curriculum development and staff training, the initiative intends to boost the percentage of children who are physically engaged daily and then to test people’s attitudes about such activity.
UNCOM’s own view is that healthy eating and active living are in part “key determinants of self-sufficiency.” The settlement houses in its coalition represent more than 400 years of helping individuals, families and neighborhoods work toward such a goal; in varying degrees they have always reflected the city’s polyglot roots—German, Italian, Irish, Polish, African-American, American Indian, Latino and Hmong. (Two of the centers date to the early 1900s. The oldest was founded as the Personal Relief Society to support needy Jewish immigrant children.)
Together they will concentrate on the neighborhoods surrounding each center and nurture “circles of influence” so that changes will be sustained. The group will move forward with a lengthy list of academic and community collaborators, including the Milwaukee public schools.
“People in this community understand that this isn’t just another program,” Nelson said. “We’re trying to change attitudes around physical activity and food. This is a serious matter.”