Bay View Community Center kitchen upgrades address food pantry needs and serve as business incubator

Upgrades to the Bay View Community Center’s kitchen that provide commercial-quality equipment will serve the needs of the organization’s growing food pantry, but also open a business incubator for bakery-specific ventures to rent starting in the coming months. 

Center officials celebrated the project’s reveal with staff, volunteers, elected officials and community members during an Oct. 24 event at the community center, 1320 E. Oklahoma Ave.

The kitchen became the central focus of a project that began at the community center, built in 1957, when the facility sought to improve ADA access and expand its functionality. Construction began in early June of this year.

The total renovation project has an estimated cost of $730,000, with grants provided by Hunger Task Force, Grace Presbyterian Church, Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Bader Philanthropies and City of Milwaukee Community Development Grant Administration. Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson announced at the event that the city plans to further invest $50,000 into Bay View Community Center. The balance of the project is funded by the center’s capital reserves as well as a loan from the Madison-based Forward Community Investments, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). 

Mayor Johnson said during the event that he is grateful that Milwaukee could be a partner with the center “and back up the work that you guys are doing.”

Said Milwaukee Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic, who serves the Bay View neighborhood, “That investment in food and families is so huge and meaningful to our community.”

Mike Mortell, president and CEO of the Bay View Community Center, said in an interview that the building’s renovation provides a stronger ability to serve the center’s food pantry needs, which have increased significantly post-pandemic. He noted that when the 2020 pandemic hit, the food pantry served about 110 people per month. In September 2023, that number was 1,300 people, he said.

“That’s a lot more food. That’s a lot more volunteers,” he said, noting that the pantry now receives between 8,000 and 10,000 pounds of food delivered every month. As the community’s needs grew for food during the pandemic, the center started to use existing classrooms and other storage space to accommodate the delivery of food from Hunger Task Force.

Mortell pointed to the increased food needs based on inflation, transportation costs, food costs and that “wages haven’t kept up.”

“There has been some raises and some bright horizons for some, but not everyone,” Mortell said. “And most of the people that use the pantry are employed.”

The renovation allowed the center to free up classroom and other space that was previously used to address the increased need for food storage, Mortell said. He said the center has freed up loading dock doors so that pallets can be better organized and stored more efficiently.

In addition to serving the food pantry and being used as an incubator for culinary startups, the kitchen will also be used for cooking classes for up to 15 hours per week. Revenue from the business incubator is expected to help with the center’s return on investment for its upgrade expenses.

“The renovation will transform an outdated and underutilized kitchen into one that returns value as a space for those who are ready to take their food business idea to the next level,” Mortell said in a released statement.

Plans for the kitchen also include providing youth with opportunities to explore food industry careers. Center officials said surplus produced from Bay View Community Center gardens will be used to prepare soups and sauces in the kitchen that will be distributed through the food pantry.

Linda Spice, Milwaukee Business Journal

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