Will Allen: Growing Power and the Good Food Revolution

6 years ago

In 1993, Will Allen bought the last remaining farm in the city of Milwaukee. It was located in a food desert halfway between two freeways on a very busy street. He bought the farm for selfish reasons.  He was looking for a place to sell the produce he was growing on his 100-acre farm in Oak Creek, WI, outside of Milwaukee. After a couple years, Allen started to work with a youth group on the farm, and eventually his friends talked him into starting a nonprofit.

Today, Growing Power is a nonprofit and land trust that supports community food systems. It has over 20 farms and 110 employees. Fifty percent of its income comes from the sale of its own products and services, such as training over 1,000 farmers a year how to replicate its growing methods. It grows 150 different varieties of vegetables, with an emphasis on greens, sprouts, and micro-greens, and it also "grows" fish. Their aquaponics systems raise over 100,000 fish a year inside their greenhouses. They also grow soil. This year, they'll take 40 million pounds of food and carbon residue, and turn it into thousands of yards of compost. The organization's next step is to build a five-story vertical farmin the city of Milwaukee (how cool is that?).

"When I see asphalt, a parking lot, or an area that's not being used,
I look at it as a potential farm."

~ Will Allen

I first came across Allen's work in the 2009 documentary, FRESH the Movie. Although seven or eight people are profiled in the film, Allen's story stood out. You can peek into the Growing Power farm, and everything they grow in their greenhouses in this 1:56 video:
The images of Growing Power's amazing greenhouses, packed from floor to ceiling, stayed with me over the years, so I was thrilled when Allen's book, The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities came out. It's a mix of memoir and food justice nonfiction, and is one my favorites reads of 2012.
Good Food Revolution by Will Allen Over the years, Allen has been recognized for his groundbreaking work in urban agriculture. In 2008, he was awarded a "genius grant" from the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He is also a member of the Clinton Global Initiative. In 2010, he was invited to the White House to join First Lady Michelle Obama in launching Let's Move!, and he was included in TIME's 100: The Most Influential People in the World. 
To close, I wanted to share a little story Allen told me when I interviewed him for my podcast, The Big Vision Podcast. I asked him to share one of his favorite Growing Power success stories. (It has been edited from the original podcast transcript):


"I used to do all the tours back in the day, before we had staff people. I was taking these six-year-olds on a tour, and there was one little girl, very smart. Kept asking me questions along the tour.

At six years old, you just want to concentrate on a couple of things. I wanted them to know that there were microorganisms, little bugs in the soil that tickle the root fibers, the micro root fibers of plants, that really help them to grow. I wanted them to be able to say that the microorganisms are helping, and have them understand that soil is alive, has no chemicals in it, and that there are worms, and all kinds of little things in the soil.

This little girl kept asking me really intelligent questions. It seemed like it was coming from a middle-schooler instead of a six-year-old.

We have animals on the farm in the city, of course. We have over 50 goats, and 500 chickens. We had Muscovy ducks and turkeys, and that sort of thing, and the kids get all excited about the worms. We grow over 100,000 fish so we toss fish food in, and the fish jump up, and the kids get excited. When they see me hold a few thousand worms in my hand, that's one of the highlights.

At the end of the tour, I always give that age group an apple or a banana, and give them a choice of what they want. As they were leaving, this little girl comes back and just walks up to me. She grabs my hand, opens it up, puts a candy in it, closes it, and walks away. It was like saying, 'Thank you for teaching us some stuff that day.' Those kind of moments make you realize why you do this, and why you spend all these hours, 17 hours a day, doing this work."



Britt is a blogging coach and big vision consultant who blogs at Have Fun * Do Good and VegCookbookClub. She also hosts the The Big Vision Podcast and the Arts and Healing Podcast. You can follow her on Twitter at @bbravo and learn more about her work at brittbravo.com

Photo credit: Joe Picciolo. Full disclosure: Britt received a review copy of The Good Food Revolution.