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.