by Melissa Ida
You could say that Will Allen’s food revolution was rooted in his family’s sharecropping background. Like many African Americans before him, Southern sharecroppers migrated to the industrial North to escape the plights and injustices that had plagued them and their ancestors for several generations. Born as the son of a sharecropper in Maryland, Will Allen grew up exposed to farming, yet pining for basketball. He experienced a successful, yet brief career of college and professional basketball. While playing basketball abroad in Europe, namely in Belgium, Allen found himself drawn to the farmers and the land in the countryside. He soon found himself taking up the practice of farming when off the court. He felt there was something both pleasurable and promising about turning up the fertile earth and tending to the fruits of one’s harvest.
In 1977, Allen retired from basketball and relocated to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, with his wife and three children. With some farmland on his wife’s side of the family, Allen farmed on the side while taking on jobs in the corporate world: first as a district manager for Kentucky Fried Chicken and later in marketing and sales for Procter & Gamble. His natural skill as a salesman shone through in the numerous awards he received from both employers. In 1993, he harnessed those worldly skills, along with his ardent passion for cultivating the land, and founded Growing Power, an organization whose two to three acre allotment has the distinction of being the final strip of farmland left within the city limits of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Two years later, Will Allen’s organization became Growing Power Inc., a nonprofit center designed for building community food security systems and urban agriculture training.
In the twenty years since its implementation, Growing Power has seen its share of struggles and triumphs. With the help of dedicated volunteers, generous grants, and his own grand vision, Will Allen has started to shift the national paradigm of what an ethical, sustainable food system currently is to what it should be. Rather than just identifying the problems with our food system, Allen has sought out effective solutions that can and will work, with enough commitment and determination. His personal motto “Grow. Bloom. Thrive.” is reflected in the core values of Growing Power.
The foundation of his operation really does exist at ground level. With greenhouses containing 20,000 plants and vegetables, in addition to thousands of fish and a plethora of rabbits, ducks, goats, chickens, and bees, Allen’s practice of urban agriculture thrives on unique practices such as vermiculture, polyculture, and aquaponics. He fashions his own compost from red wriggler worms and food scraps, using worm castings as the fertilizer for his soil. The fish and certain plants there, such as watercress, share a symbiotic relationship: the waste water from the fish circulates to the watercress, which in turn purifies it and makes it reusable. Just as the plants and animals there thrive within an ecologically savvy network, so do the relationships between the workers of Growing Power and the people that come there.
Running Growing Power as a nonprofit organization, Allen relies on grants to help pay for its sixty-five staff members. Besides its employees, Growing Power is host to twenty-five interns and apprentices and countless volunteers and students. Its effect on community outreach has been empowering and impressive. By setting up an urban farm next to the largest low-income housing project in Milwaukee, Allen has been able to cater to the needs of the impoverished and malnourished. He provides healthy, fresh produce and meats at affordable prices within walking distance. Community members are more than welcome to volunteer in his greenhouses, where they can learn to grow their own food and better their own lives in doing so. The neighborhood’s youth has always been a major target for Allen, who believes that providing them with the chance to share a communal garden will create better, opportunity-rich lives for them. From juvenile delinquents to those using government food programs, children and teenagers from all walks of life can come to Growing Power and gain practical skills in self-reliance and environmentalism, such as composting, gardening, construction, sustainability, and cooking. These applications help prepare children for higher education and future jobs. By working in a social environment and combining mental and physical skills, they can see firsthand the results of their efforts and decisions in maintaining a sustainable food system. Literally, they are growing a better future not only for themselves, but for the rest of their community too.
Growing Power has thrived in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee. With only fast-food restaurants and convenience stores in the area, those with little to no income and lack of transportation have been hard pressed to find ways to eat healthfully. At one point, Allen stated that the only supermarket offering wholesome foods and fresh produce was three miles away from the low-income housing project, pointing out that three miles is a long way when you don’t have a car. Allen took it upon himself, then, to establish a way to provide healthy food at low prices for those most in need of them. By reaching out to community vendors and businesses, he worked relentlessly to sell his products at farmers markets, local restaurants, cooperatives, food shelters, and even through a mobile delivery service. His one-of-a-kind Market Basket Program is best described as a mix of a community supported agriculture program and a mobile grocery store. It delivers locally grown produce on a weekly basis to the neighborhoods of Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee. Most of the products come from Growing Power, Rainbow Farmer’s Cooperative, and other small-scale, family or locally owned wholesalers. In light of all his ambitious endeavors, Allen has achieved much.
Since 1998, Will Allen has been no stranger to praise. His countless awards and recognition include, but are not limited to, the MacArthur Foundation’s Genius award, being listed as one of Time magazine’s “World’s 100 Most Influential People,” and being invited to speak on behalf of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative at the White House. He has been invited to speaking engagements all over the nation and has made notable media appearances on programs and networks such as PBS, WPR, and CNN. Just last year, Allen reached a milestone in his life with the publication of his book The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities, which gives an insightful look into Allen’s life and the history of Growing Power. Despite all his success and never-ending schedule of work and events, Allen remains firmly grounded. His vision for Growing Power is still expanding, with workshops, speaking engagements, and, of course, urban farming all in the works. Will Allen is truly one of the forerunners of the good food revolution. And if his remarkable journey proves anything, it is this: where there is a will, a passion, a vision, there is a way to achieve it.
Editor’s note: Will Allen will be speaking at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Forum Series April 17.