Mr. Brockel Goes to Hippie Town

Photo by Melody Chavez

Chris Brockel comes from a village a million miles away from Madison. At least, that’s what it felt like to him in the 60s and 70s. If residents in the late 1800s were more familiar with French accents, the village would’ve been named Paquette. But they weren’t, so we call it Poynette.

One of Chris’ first experiences with Madison was during a field trip his class took in the early 70s. “I remember getting pushed out of the State Historical Society onto a bus on Langdon Street as kids as fast as we could,” says Chris. “Looking down Langdon Street, there’s students on the far end, and there’s cops in front of Memorial Union, and there’s a bunch of teargas in the air.” In terms of what the world was outside Poynette, his eyes started to open.

Chris’ grandma had been subtly prepping him for the outside world even before the field trip. “I learned a lot from that woman. She had this sense of social justice that she never would say out loud, but it came across in other ways. I remember sitting with her watching Muhammad Ali on a black-and-white tv, and she goes, ‘I just love that man. I just love what he’s trying to do.’”

When it came time to decide whether or not he’d go to college, Chris elected to roll the dice at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “I wanted to get out and see the world and push myself. My dad and I didn’t have a good relationship at that point (we do now), so I was going to revolt against anything that he wanted me to do. So I’m going to Madison, and he was like, ‘No!’ To him, it was like coming to hippie town.”

There was something about a university in the city that made Chris feel like a farm boy surrounded by really smart people, even though all signs pointed to Chris being pretty bright himself. One day, Professor Jerry Apps pulled him aside and said, “Chris, you’re a really smart guy, but you gotta start speaking up. You have something to say, and you are a poet. But you sit there, and you’re quiet. It’s either that you don’t trust what you have to say or you’re cowed by everyone else in the room.”

Photograph by Frankie Pobar-Lay

It was something Chris needed to hear—he didn’t just have value as an individual, but he had value to others. After struggling to put his teaching degree to use in a competitive and saturated market, Chris decided to go to grad school and continue his studies in vocational education. “The thought was that I would become a teacher of adults with a focus on literacy and high school completion.” When he worked at the Dane County jail for Omega school, another wave of someone else’s reality hit him. “It pushed my comfort zone. Pushed my boundaries. Taught me a lot of things. I was just a young guy from a small town, and my eyes were wide open.” The biggest lesson came from the program directors, who taught Chris that to help someone you start by giving them respect and bringing dignity to what they already know. You start from a position that empowers them, not a deficit position.

The next place Chris found himself was developing training programs for Head Start and for people at the job center; a few years in, things were going pretty well. But…well, “In the early 2000s, there was the whole welfare reform push. It was both national and local. Bill Clinton was a big welfare reform guy, and so was Tommy Thompson. Basically, between the two, welfare reform training became ‘get a job,’ and so I was laid off.”

After months of looking for jobs and living on unemployment, Chris found an opening at the Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin. They were looking for a food and gardens division manager. “What do I know about any of that? I got the job mainly because I had the nonprofit management experience. Certainly wasn’t my foodie experience because I didn’t have any.

“The amazing thing after I got the job, and it didn’t take long, was realizing how much I enjoyed it. How much it was feeding a passion that I didn’t even know existed in me.” Chris’ work spanned everything from greatly expanding the number of Madison community gardens to helping create the system that allowed people to use their EBT cards at the Farmers’ Market.

“My theory is you don’t beat people up,” says Chris. “You don’t threaten to take away food stamps or limit what they can buy with food stamps. What you do is you give them dignified choices. … People aren’t making bad choices; they’re making the choices that are presented to them.”

Photograph by Frankie Pobar-Lay

Chris later worked with United Way to write a healthy food plan for children, and then worked at FairShare CSA Coalition. But as much as he appreciated that work, it wasn’t feeding his passion. He eventually left FairShare and created Health Food for All, which he now runs out of FEED Kitchens. “My experience at FairShare was that these [organic] farms will eventually have excess produce that they don’t know what to do with. They’d like to do something with it, but they don’t have the time. No single one of them had enough produce or donations to make it worthwhile for someone like Second Harvest to come out and get it. So what I constantly heard from them is they’d like to do it, but there needs to be a system for collecting it. I can do that! That’s certainly what I grew up doing.”

A real breakthrough moment happened when Epic reached out to Chris concerning their big wine and dine events. “They feed them breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, so there’s tons of leftover food. They didn’t want to throw it all out and needed a place for it to go.”

Recalling that first trial run, Chris says, “I was bringing cups of fruit salad to St. Vincent de Paul food pantry on that Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend, and people were standing in line. They saw me carrying these in and were like, ‘Oh my god! Are we going to get that today?’

“And I’m like, ‘Yep, yep.’

“‘Oh great, that’ll go great with my Labor Day picnic.’

“At that point I realized…something’s right about this.”

Chris’ current position as manager of Northside Planning Council’s FEED Kitchens allows him to continue using his strengths to fuel his passions. The facility has five commercial kitchens for rent, giving businesses, nonprofits, training programs, and individuals the means to produce food legally so it can be sold to the public. Honestly, I don’t think Chris is done, and from what he’s told me, he seems more confident than ever he’s in the best position to give Dane County everything he has to offer.

Kyle Jacobson is a writer and copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson