It seems like a simple concept, but Will Allen's Growing Power in Milwaukee feels like a community food revolution. Allen, a former NBA draft pick and Proctor & Gamble executive, founded Growing Power to make good, clean produce easy to find and affordable to buy in the middle of urban areas where fresh fruit and vegetables are scarce. And through creation of these food systems, the group aims to help build communities.
Ground zero is the original two-acre Milwaukee farm Allen started in 1999, the so-called "prototype" for Growing Power's increasing number of Community Food Centers. There, in the middle of urban Milwaukee, Allen's group grows an impressive amount of food using sustainable, hands-on agricultural practices:
"His Growing Power organization has six greenhouses and eight hoophouses for greens, herbs and vegetables; pens for goats, ducks and turkeys; a chicken coop and beehives; and a system for raising tilapia and perch. There's an advanced composting operation - a virtual worm farm - and a lab that is working on ways to turn food waste into fertilizer and methane gas for energy.
With a staff of about three dozen full-time workers and 2,000 residents pitching in as volunteers, his operation raises about $500,000 worth of affordable produce, meat and fish for one of what he calls the "food deserts" of American cities, where the only access to food is corner grocery stories filled with beer, cigarettes and processed foods." - New York Times
After Growing Power cultivates and harvests the fruits, vegetables, livestock, and fish, it sells the healthy, high-quality food at affordable prices within the community as well as donating some to local food pantries. Some area restaurants even purchase Growing Power's produce.
Plus, the organization holds workshops and training sessions to help spread the benefits of urban farming to other communities. The idea of growing food in these urban areas instead of rural ones has been garnering Allen and Growing Power praise from all over the sustainable food and nonprofit networks. Last September, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Allen a $500,000 genius grant for his vision. According to his 2008 MacArthur Fellow profile,
"Rather than embracing the "back to the land" approach promoted by many within the sustainable agriculture movement, Allen's holistic farming model incorporates both cultivating foodstuffs and designing food distribution networks in an urban setting. Through a novel synthesis of a variety of low-cost farming technologies - including use of raised beds, aquaculture, vermiculture, and heating greenhouses through composting - Growing Power produces vast amounts of food year-round at its main farming site, two acres of land located within Milwaukee's city limits." - The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Growing Power's focus on people is another feature that makes the venture distinct from other sustainable agriculture projects. With his project, Allen is demonstrating that people can grow affordable, high-quality food within cities, but on a much more significant level he's also working to improve the health of urban residents. And Growing Power is aiming for social justice, too. The new Growing Food and Justice for All Initiative (GFJI) is focused on,
"dismantling racism and empowering low-income and communities of color through sustainable and local agriculture.
This comprehensive network views dismantling racism as a core principal which brings together social change agents from diverse sectors working to bring about new, healthy and sustainable food systems and supporting and building multicultural leadership in impovershed [sic] communities throughout the world." - Growing Food and Justice
When I read or write about individuals creating such positive change in their corners of the world, I always find their motivations interesting. What compels a person to take on a community-wide problem rather than leave it for someone else to fix? With Allen, every interview I read finds him crediting his upbringing:
"[H]is passion for food comes from his parents. They made a meager living as sharecroppers near Washington, D.C. But, Allen recalls, "We fed people - our family and extended family - and we sold food. So what I'm doing today. When people say, 'So how do you feel about this McArthur thing you won, or this Ford Foundation thing or whatever you got?', it's really my parents. They should be the recipients of those." - Voice of America