By Marlena White
Will Allen is best known as the founder and mastermind of Growing Power, Inc., a nonprofit organization in Milwaukee, WI working to support community food systems through training, outreach, and technical assistance. The son of a sharecropper and former professional basketball player, Allen started Growing Power in 1993 after driving past a derelict plant nursery in northern Milwaukee. He decided to buy the nursery and start an urban farm to provide locally grown food for the community and a place to work for local teens. Since then, Growing Power has flourished as a center of agricultural innovation, making Allen the recipient of multiple awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship. Allen recently co-authored, with Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, an afterword for The Prince’s Speech: On the Future of Food, the published text of Prince Charles’ speech on the importance of a sustainable food system. Allen recently spoke at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health as a guest of the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
“We have a serious problem with our food system. Not just in the US, but around the world,” according to Allen. He cites issues like the low quality of food available to youth at school, food-related illnesses, and the negative impact that food production has had on our environment. “Our food system should be good medicine for us,” he claims, “Some of us eat good medicine, and some of us eat bad medicine.” To achieve healthy communities, Allen asserts, we must have a food supply that is safe, healthy, and affordable.
Growing Power has projects primarily in Milwaukee, Madison, and Chicago. These operations include year-round fruit and vegetable production, aquaponics, livestock, and bees. One of their most ambitious projects is Growing Power’s construction of a multilevel greenhouse in Milwaukee for vertical farming. Growing Power is also supporting training, outreach, and technical assistance for local food projects across the United States and abroad. And the organization stresses multicultural and multigenerational diversity. Allen strongly believes that people from both urban and rural settings and of all ages, ethnicities, and abilities must be involved in creating a better food system.
Allen says there is a need for corporate partnerships, which is a particularly controversial subject. Last year, Growing Power accepted a US$1 million donation from Walmart, drawing criticism from many of the organization’s supporters. But Allen believes such partnerships will be necessary to increase the capacity of local food systems, which often have limited funding and markets. “Ten years ago,” he explains, “we wouldn’t want those people [corporations] at the table. But for us to solve this problem [of an unhealthy food system], we need everybody at the table.” Allen believes it is up to the good food movement to educate the corporate world about the importance of a sustainable and healthy food system, and to lead the way toward making it a reality.
And for Allen, the key to a healthy food system is soil. “When it comes to food, it’s all about the soil,” according to Allen. “If you can grow good soil, you can grow good food.” Much of our soil, he points out, is contaminated and lacks nutrients. Growing food in an urban environment can lead to exposure to hidden environmental contaminants, while food produced in the industrial system is often grown in depleted soil enhanced with chemical fertilizers. “A local food system is the only way to guarantee you’re eating food with its full nutrient impact,” says Allen.
To meet this need for good soil, all of Growing Power’s projects, from community gardens to urban farms, depend on the production of compost. Allen explains that making enough compost relies on creating relationships within the community to effectively divert waste from the landfill. Every year, Growing Power processes more than 22 million pounds of food waste collected from community partners, including expired foods from grocery stores and waste from the nearby Miller Brewery. This food waste is converted to compost by the roughly 7,000 pounds of worms at their Milwaukee headquarters. Allen highlighted the need for such compost operations in every city, to make every available square foot a source of safe, nutritious food.
Allen has also identified several technical challenges to improving the capacity of local food systems and urban agriculture. They include: incorporating renewable energy into food production; safely growing food on asphalt; increasing the output from vertical farming; and determining the maximum amount of food that can be grown organically in a square foot. These challenges represent the next steps to turning cities into hubs of food production—next steps that Allen and Growing Power are already working hard to take.
Marlena White is a research intern for the Nourishing the Planet Project.