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Natural Awakenings Milwaukee

Growing Power: Welcome to Will Allen’s world, where everyone has Growing Power.

Mar 01, 2012 03:14PM ● By Linda Sechrist

Will Allen

Will Allen, a sharecropper’s son who was a professional basketball player when he rediscovered his love for agriculture, is now CEO and founder of Growing Power, Inc., an internationally recognized nonprofit organization and land trust supporting people from diverse backgrounds and the environments in which they live. The sustainable trail he began to forge in 1993 may begin in Milwaukee, but it doesn’t end there or anywhere in the United States.

Today, Allen’s life work in urban and sustainable farming already stands on its own: hands-on training, on-theground demonstration, and outreach and technical assistance through the development of Community Food Systems that help people grow, process, market and distribute high-quality, safe and affordable food in a sustainable manner. His latest endeavor is
a presentation at the Ninth Annual Green Energy Summit and Exposition in Milwaukee, where 4,000 attendees are expected from Wisconsin and adjacent states, including many representatives of industry, government and the academic world.

Allen recently shared some insights about his hopeful vision for Growing Power and the nation’s food system with Natural Awakenings.

What will be the focus of your presentation at the upcoming Green Energy Summit?

My presentation will cover different aspects of our integrated system. At the top of the list is how Growing Power uses solar energy to heat water in the aquaponics closed-loop system, and how we are creating energy from compost to heat buildings. In addition, I’ll talk about anaerobic digestion for food waste, which is a series of processes in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen.

Design for world’s first working five-story, urban vertical farm ~ ©The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc.
Design for world’s first working five-story, urban vertical farm ~ ©The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc.

More importantly, I intend to appeal to everyone, rather than just the academics and individuals interested in how we use energy to reduce our production costs. I feel that it’s vital for others to learn about how Growing Power has networked with the intention of building mutually enhancing relationships with more than 100 organizations—businesses, universities
and funding partners—so that, like permaculture, we have every piece of the sustainable puzzle at the “Good Food Revolution Table” to work together.

Reflectively speaking, if we look back as late as 10 yearsago, there are certain organizations or groups that we would not have invited to the table because of their politics or past indiscretions. Today, we can’t afford that sort of exclusivity, because everyone needs to be involved in the food system—educators on all levels, local and state policy makers, USDA personnel, city planners, environmentalists, engineers, physicians, health practitioners, financial institutions, economists, psychologists, anthropologists and more—to dialogue about healthy food, healthy living and energy.

What is your Good Food Revolution about?

The Good Food Revolution is about realizing that every category that represents an aspect of our lives needs to be at the table when there is a discussion about our food system. This approach, which embraces and honors diversity, has helped Growing Power to get people to understand that safe, affordable food for everyone is a social justice issue that no one can afford to ignore. Bringing people together and honoring their different opinions and ideas has been beneficial to us, but we have far to go. There are still people in Milwaukee who have no choice other than bad food. This means that good, nutritious food should remain at the forefront as a social justice issue and never drop from that level of importance. If we don’t eat, we don’t survive.

What progress have you seen since 1993, when Growing Power was simply an organization with teens who needed a place to work, and you were a farmer on the north side of Milwaukee with land?

More than 70 percent of the people working in the food system today are under the age of 40, and many are people of color. I give much of the credit for this wonderful change to First Lady Michelle Obama, her White House garden and the One Million Gardens project.

I love seeing a resurgence of people who are doing something that, historically, previous generations enjoyed, and it’s inspiring to see so many young people who want to learn. As recently as 1997, I was frequently asked why, as an African American, I was doing something that was considered the work of a slave. I said it then and I’ll say it now: I grow food not because I’m asked to, but because I like to eat good food.

It’s easier for Growing Power to make inroads today because we have concrete examples in rural and urban settings located in Wisconsin and Illinois, as well as a network of 15 regional training centers throughout the U.S. Today, individuals, organizations and companies call us, rather than us calling them, to become involved. And, we are training more than a thousand farmers a year, who come to us from across the U.S. as well as other countries.

What do you envision for the future of our food system and Growing Power?

I see lots of green jobs for urban farmers, electrical engineers, urban planners, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, horticulturists, nutritionists and more.

I also see a future where we have all realized our responsibility for working together and not just relying on governments or large corporations to fix our bad food system or improve access to healthy food in communities of need. I envision a future that includes more of what I’ve already seen as I’ve traveled across this country: young, middle-aged and elderly people taking control of the food systems in their communities where they grow food on balconies and in side yards, back yards and community plots.

I see new gardens and farms in urban, suburban and rural communities, as well as people raising fish and plants inside buildings. And, in the future that I see, people have employed creative techniques to grow food year-round in even the harshest climates, as we do at Growing Power, in Milwaukee. In other words, people aren’t just talking about sustainability and ending world hunger anymore—they are doing something about it.

For more information, visit Growing Power’s Milwaukee headquarters and urban farm at 5500 W. Silver Spring Dr., Milwaukee, call 414-527-1546 or visit

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