Will Allen was already a success — a pro basketball player in his youth and later an exec with Kentucky Fried Chicken and Procter & Gamble — when he found his true calling. The grandson of sharecroppers, whose parents left farming for a better life, Allen was in his forties when he got the idea to farm on a tiny rundown lot in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
He started from nothing, literally growing his own dirt, enhancing the depleted soil by means of compost and vermiculture — worms. He sold the fresh food he grew at Will’s Roadside Stand in the middle of a food desert.
That became the seed of Growing Power, Allen’s national nonprofit dedicated to growing healthy food and healthy communities. Twenty years after he began, Allen and his team now grow 150 different crops on two acres, making optimal use of tight urban space. Allen has developed innovative organic farming methods, from vertical farming to aquaculture. He’s also transformed a rough Milwaukee neighborhood into a thriving community.
Through Growing Power, Allen raises 40 tons of fresh produce year-round. He also raises awareness. In workshops and talks like his 2012 commencement address at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, where he was the school’s first African-American basketball player, he shares how growing food grows community, too. Allen is also the recipient of a 2008 MacArthur genius grant and the author of the new book The Good Food Revolution.
Your parents were part of the Great Migration, in which six million African-Americans left farming in the South for jobs in industry elsewhere. You went the other way, going from a successful businessman to a return to farming. Why?
It was passion, a burning desire to prove you can make this kind of thing work. That’s what drives me. If things are going real smooth, I’m probably not having a good time.
It’s truly an art form to learn how to grow food. It’s one of the hardest things to do; there’s weather, bugs, airborne diseases that attack your plant, so many things against you. I like to do challenging things, and this is one of the most challenging things of our time: to make sure we’re healthy.
In The Good Food Revolution, you talk about your grandmother Rosa Bell’s “make-do” talent — making use of what you’ve got, even when it’s not much. You’ve got a lot of that, too. What happened to the rest of us?
We’ve gotten used to the conveniences of life. In many families, legacies were not passed down through time. Many generations missed out on some of the basic life skills they should have learned and passed down.
Even though we were very poor, cash-poor, I was fortunate. Learning to take care of yourself and feed yourself is such a powerful thing. Worldwide, we took that for granted, and now we’re paying the price.
A lot of things we’ve done to ourselves — polluting our soil, not passing on the gift of learning how to farm. One out of every six of us will go to bed hungry. How is that possible? Kids are getting sick, we wonder what’s that all about. The world is unhealthier than ever before.
Two-thirds of our health profile is about food and nutrition. If we could take care of that two-thirds piece, we won’t be talking about health care. Food is the most important thing to human beings, so why not eat healthy food?
You talk about the need for more small farms and young farmers. What’s the best way to achieve that?
It doesn’t happen overnight.
We need to put more funding into sustainable agriculture. There’s not much farming money. We need to grow farmers and train farmers. They won’t come from rural communities; they’ll come from colleges and programs. We have to train them more intensively on less space, because we have less healthy farmland. More population, less space. I’ve started growing on a five-story vertical farm.
The industrial food system’s going to be here. But you never know who the farmer is, how your food was grown. We need to give people a choice. Eighty-six percent of us would rather have locally grown food.
You can’t sustain something unless you’re environmentally aware. We all have a responsibility to take care of the earth and leave it better for the next generation. Every person on earth has to learn.
We can engage young people, really engage them right now. Start at home, in the classrooms. Make these lessons very concrete; that’s how kids learn. Don’t just talk to them; if they participate in, say, a garden in a school or greencatch system, simple things like collecting food scraps to make compost, to collect leaves and newspaper and cardboard — there’s so many things young people can learn. Once they get it an early age, they’ll continue to do that throughout their lives.
You write about how small farmers are suffering, African-American farmers in particular. What makes what you do worthwhile to you?
What keeps me doing this work is to see positive changes happening. Seeing the change in a community reenergizes me. To see a young person becoming passionate about changing eating habits energizes me. Seeing more local food in public schools, to start something and sustain it.
To team up with the First Lady, starting that 1,200-square-foot garden at the White House. Her consistency and the passion she shows for that. The First Family is a healthy family who eats healthy food — that’s helped a lot. Having that kind of support has helped move this along into a revolution. Ten million people are growing food for the first time.
What’s the best way a community can implement some of Growing Power’s ideas and projects?
To create a community food system, you’re really working with community partners. If you’re not able to engage the community, you couldn’t do what we do today. Putting a compost site 200 feet from someone’s home — they would stop us from doing it, the community would complain.
Nothing’s perfect. I compost and I can’t say there’s never going to be a smell. But we engage with the community. Instead of calling the city to complain, they’ll call us and say, “What’s going on?” We’ll explain: we’re just loading the truck, we kicked up some anaerobic matter, it’ll be gone in 15 minutes. We engage the community.
You’re a get-it-done, hands-in-the-dirt kind of guy. What got you to sit down and write a book?
People kept asking, “When are you going to write a book?” I finally succumbed. It took a long time, but I wanted the content to be something that could be used 20 years from now, something schools can use. Kids today don’t know what Jim Crow laws were all about.
My parents, they didn’t talk about the negative things in their lives. They didn’t complain. My father, my mother — I never heard her complain a day in her life. Learning some of their stories, some of the things they went through, surprised me. They were very revealing and touching in a lot of ways.
Your parents deliberately left farming. How would they feel about your choice to return to it?
My parents would be blown away. They would be so happy that what they taught us to do I’ve been able to continue, that one of their kids continued a legacy and has been able to pass it on. Erika [Allen’s eldest daughter] heads the Chicago operations.
How has your work with Growing Power shaped how you live and eat?
I’ve always eaten good food. I search out good food. I grow my own food, I go to the farmers markets, I pick up a cabbage and peel back the leaf. If I see chemical residue, I put it back. I want more people to eat like I do.
Food is the most important thing in our lives. Even from a culture standpoint, using food to bring people together. Even with groups that don’t get along, food gets people talking. Have a good, healthy meal, and it just puts people at ease. They start working out their issues and problems. It’s such a powerful tool.
Where does your awareness of that come from?
Oh, gosh — my parents, how they lived and how they shared food with others. If at any time, people would show up at our house, we would feed them — family, friends, teenagers when I was in high school. People knew we had the food. Everyone should have the same access to food; it’s a social-justice issue.
I’m trying to get everybody to sit at the Good Food Revolution table. We need hundreds of people in every category: people in finance, nutritionists, chefs who want to use local food, architects, planners, people in renewable energy, innovative people who can build systems that work, like vertical farms. They’re all related to the food system. We’re going to do this conference this year, September 7, 8, and 9. We’re expecting over 30,000 people.
If you can’t make it to the conference, what’s the best thing the average consumer can do to help create a sustainable food system?
Ask for locally grown food. Just by demanding locally grown food, sustainably grown food, food that protects the environment, consumers can drive what we’re trying to do.
Participate by making informed choices without grabbing something coated with poison. Think about what you’re putting in your belly, what schools are putting in their kids. Don’t take it for granted everyone has your best interest.
Get a small garden going in your backyard, on your balcony. Seek out some good soil. What’s in the soil, all those little micronutrients — that’s where it’s at.