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Scaling Up the Good Food Revolution

In the 2009 sustainable food-themed documentary Fresh, Will Allen is referred to as “one of the most influential leaders of the food security and urban farming movement.” For more than two decades, Growing Power, Allen’s nonprofit urban farm, has fed thousands of people while providing job-training skills for underserved youth. A sought-after speaker at sustainability and food security conferences worldwide, Allen is often credited with launching Milwaukee’s thriving urban farming movement.

Allen comes from a family of sharecroppers that left farming during the Great Migration to pursue other opportunities. Before launching Growing Power, he had also left farming—playing professional basketball, operating a disco and holding executive positions with KFC and Procter & Gamble. After recovering from a health issue, however, he began growing chemical-free produce on his own property, selling it to Lena’s Food Market and Fondy Farmers’ Market.

Allen used his retirement savings to purchase a two-acre plot that was formerly a greenhouse on the northwest side of Milwaukee, and in 1993 he formed Growing Power—returning to the profession his family had tried to leave behind.

He used his agricultural alchemy to turn the contaminated soil and dilapidated greenhouses into a bountiful local food system that provides sustainably grown, pesticide-free produce. He has since added closed-loop aquaculture systems and vermiculture—composting food waste into fertilizer using worms—to the farm’s operations.

In 2016, Growing Power is continuing to grow good food with-out chemicals, using the proceeds to fund its programs teaching youth to build and maintain aquaponic systems; soil remediation through raised beds; hoop house construction; vermiculture; food distribution; and operation of its retail store.

The training programs reflect Allen’s dedication to raising not just good food, but future farmers to grow it.

“One of our biggest challenges is that we don’t have enough farmers that grow good food,” he says. “We’re adding an agricultural training program designed to help individuals develop a farm business or a food system business. It goes beyond just learning how to grow plants. It’s an introduction to the food process to start a business related to the food system. That’s where a lot of our energy will go this year, while at the same time maintaining the facilities we have in Milwaukee, Chicago and Madison—growing good food and getting it to people in those communities at a reasonable price.”

Growing Power, Inc

This year, Growing Power will expand its training programs to include projects in Haiti and South Africa, helping low-income youth bring good food into their lives on a local level, Allen says. He will also take a team of professional farmers to resume training programs at Duke Farms, in Hillsborough, New Jersey.

“Let’s scale it up,” Allen’s general message for 2016, is directed toward everyone in the sustainable food movement. “I’ve seen urban farming slowly scale up. Now is the time to escalate, because we’re still not growing enough good food,” he says, noting that the movement is a win-win for communities’ physical and economic health. “Because everybody eats, urban farming is the most logical thing I know of to create jobs. People want good food, and this is a way to provide access to it.”

More farmers—especially younger farmers—are the future of sustainable good food systems, Allen says. So is year-round farming through hoop houses and greenhouses, which can be a solution to adverse weather effects from climate change.

Allen says he has been encouraged by the interest shown by college students that attend his talks throughout the United States. Seeing people getting creative and growing food on their balconies and windowsills also makes him optimistic. “We need more of that,” he says.

While establishing living wages in the sustainable food system is difficult, he says, it can and must be done. It is also vital to use other resources such as rainwater and renewable energy, and to coordinate all facets of government, the corporate world and health fields to direct their time and resources into sustainable agriculture.

In 2011, Allen published The Good Food Revolution, which describes his journey and Growing Power’s work and offers tips for people that want to make a difference by growing food in their communities. He was also instrumental in forming the new Institute for Urban Agriculture and Nutrition through UW-Milwaukee. In 2017, he will participate in the Milwaukee Public Museum’s Our Global Kitchen exhibit exploring food, nature and culture.

Allen says when he started Growing Power 23 years ago, he didn’t set out to have the largest urban farm in the world—he was just determined to prove that urban farming works. And his mission is far from over.

“We need more land to grow food, and then we will grow people so we can build a sustainable community,” he says. “The only way we can improve people’s lives is by improving their ability to get away from poverty. There are impoverished areas in Milwaukee with lots of crime, but the greatest crime-fighting tool is living-wage jobs. It’s a piece of the puzzle. We can change the food system in this town, the country and the world.”

Growing Power is located at 5500 W. Silver Spring Dr., Milwaukee. For more information, call 414-527-1546 or visit GrowingPower.org.

Sheila Julson is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine.

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