Will Allen’s Growing Power

Meet Will Allen, a 60 year old giant in urban farming. Allen runs an inner city farm in the heart of Milwaukee, creating an oasis in the middle of a food desert.

He calls his program “Growing Power,” and it’s huge. On a mere two acres of land surrounded by housing projects and fast food joints, Will Allen grows a quarter of a million dollars worth of food, feeding more than 10,000 urbanites.

Imagine a space teeming with life, life stacked high and wide and deep. Chickens, ducks, heritage turkeys, goats, beehives, tilapia, perch, and thousands of pounds of vegetables and fruits all share the inner city plot. It’s intensive, organic, and wouldn’t be possible without the scores of employees Allen has on hand as well as thousands of community volunteers who work in exchange for knowledge, food, and a sense of empowerment. And, it’s as sustainable as it can be for being in the heart of a city.

Last week, the NY Times Magazine ran a large story on Allen and the attention he’s been receiving, and I thought you’d enjoy a few highlights from the piece:

If inside the greenhouse was Eden, outdoors was, as Allen explained on a drive through the neighborhood, “a food desert.” Scanning the liquor stores in the strip malls, he noted: “From the housing project, it’s more than three miles to the Pick’n Save. That’s a long way to go for groceries if you don’t have a car or can’t carry stuff. And the quality of the produce can be poor.” Fast-food joints and convenience stores selling highly processed, high-calorie foods, on the other hand, were locally abundant. “It’s a form of redlining,” Allen said. “We’ve got to change the system so everyone has safe, equitable access to healthy food.”

Get this: Allen saw a food desert, and he started doing what he could to change it based on his own loves and special talents (gardening and sales). In other parts of the country, people are working to persuade their local governments to offer more incentives for opening up grocery stores within walking distance of people’s homes. Inspiring, isn’t it?

“We need 50 million more people growing food,” Allen told them, “on porches, in pots, in side yards.” The reasons are simple: as oil prices rise, cities expand and housing developments replace farmland, the ability to grow more food in less space becomes ever more important. As Allen can’t help reminding us, with a mischievous smile, “Chicago has 77,000 vacant lots.”

Amen! And further down in the article, after reading about Allen’s illiterate sharecropping father, his career in professional basketball, and his return to farming, we get this little grace-filled gem:

This nondogmatic approach may be one of Allen’s most appealing qualities. His essential view is that people do the best they can: if they don’t have any better food choices than KFC, well, O.K. But let’s work on changing that. If they don’t know what to do with okra, Growing Power stands ready to help. And if their great-grandparents were sharecroppers and they have some bad feelings about the farming life, then Allen has something to offer there too: his personal example and workshops geared toward empowering minorities. “African-Americans need more help, and they’re often harder to work with because they’ve been abused and so forth,” Allen said. “But I can break through a lot of that very quickly because a lot of people of color are so proud, so happy to see me leading this kind of movement.”

Why do appreciate his sentiment so much? Because it\’s not elitist in the slightest. He’s about helping people — helping all people — have access to locally-grown, organic, nutrient-dense Real Food. It’s not just for the wealthy, those who picked up a love for fine cuisine while traveling through Europe, or tree-hugging hippies.

Go ahead, read the whole thing and get to know Will Allen.

(photo by cpentecost)


  1. says

    Hi Kristen,

    Thanks for sharing this! Will Allen is so motivating. I loved him in “Fresh”, too. How exciting that this article was in the NY Times! More and more I’m feeling it……….we’re all making headway in this Real Food movement, woohoo!!!!


    Kelly the Kitchen Kop

  2. says

    Will Allen has done great things here in Milwaukee, and I’m so proud that he is getting the attention he deserves for his work. We’ve been buying the great produce from Growing Power for years — and I can’t tell you how good it feels to eat it. NOT only because it’s fantastic, but also because you can tell its being grown for a higher good.

    If you’re EVER in the Milwaukee area, I’d highly recommend stopping by. And be sure to pick up a bag of the Growing Power worm castings for your own garden! Those are some seriously well-fed worms!


  3. says

    lo — How awesome! You lucky dog.

    Tamara — I know, he’s very inspiring, isn’t he?

    Vin — Right on. Not many people are willing to examine themselves, discover what they’re passionate about, and then figure out how to do that profitably.

    Kelly — I’m excited, too. It’d be great if we could start seeing articles like this in rags other than the NY Times & San Francisco Chronicle, though. Those are great papers, but I’ll really feel like we’ve hit the mainstream when papers like the Dallas Morning News carry such huge stories on the movement.

  4. says

    Gotta love the mental giants that take the time to look past the corporate midgets of this world…. If you dig this kind of stuff then check out Ecological Economics by Joshua Farley as a process of social change… its time has come!

  5. says

    How powerful is this?? How amazing is this special soul. I feel like packing up, moving there and busting my arse to help him. Wow. Linda, I agree, this is a prime example of what Marianne Williamson is talking about … his light automatically liberates us from our own obstacles to greatness!!! My spirit so needed this boost this evening. Thank you just for YOU being !

    “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and famous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

  6. Diane Mundell says

    this man is awsome, i am going to put in more garden beds, and grow what i can. if only we had someone like this in every city in the usa,,,,we all could eat and share and love each other. God bless this man

  7. Boomer says

    It’s “redlining” brought on by ghetto residents rioting at the drop of a hat. They established that pattern and now grocery chains are very leery of placing stores in those areas.

  8. Monique Duhamel says

    What a beautiful and brilliant man! In just reading the article and his impact on his community he has given me wings to fix my tiller and start gardening again! If I’m ever out that way I will definately check this ‘grow oasis’ out!

  9. Jerry Frey says

    God has called this man. Ihope to meet this man. It is time we get to work. I am starting a non [profit organization universal greenhouses. Call me 816 719 7896

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