Will Allen was driving through a desert when he came upon an oasis.
Allen was cruising along Milwaukee’s West Silver Spring Drive on a routine workday in January 1993 when he came across a “for sale” sign and some empty greenhouses, battered and broken, in the midst of a food desert, a neighborhood where residents must go miles to reach a supermarket but have easy access to fast-food joints and convenience markets.
Growers have a saying: “right plant, right place, right time.” Well, the right person was in the right place at the right time. The son of a sharecropper, Allen had left the farm for careers in pro basketball and corporate America only to find he couldn’t escape the lure of the land. He tapped into his 401(k), got a loan and bought the property – the last tract zoned for agricultural use in the city of Milwaukee. His decision would lead to the nonprofit Growing Power Inc. and help fuel the good food revolution.
“It’s the hardest profession in the world, to grow food, to be creative, to reduce the costs of production, to work so that everybody has food – not substandard food for some but good food for everybody,” said Allen, now considered America’s most prominent urban farmer. “I never tire from this.”
Usually photographed in blue jeans, a baseball cap and a sleeveless sweatshirt or T-shirt, Allen starts his days at about 4:30 a.m. and finishes about 7 p.m., depending on when the work gets done. “That,” he said, “is the life of a farmer.”
He spends his days with worms, compost, plants and soil. He prefers talking about nutrition over politics.
“I try not to be political at all,” said Allen, noting that he’s been nudged to run for office. “The farmer only has so much capacity.”
But Allen does have policy interests and Growing Power has a manifesto. Decades ago, people gave up power over their food supply to big agri-chemical companies that can make a lot more money from selling Twinkies than turnip greens.
“The fault really is with all of us who casually, willingly, even happily surrendered our rights to safe, wholesome, affordable and plentiful food in exchange for over-processed and pre-packaged convenience,” the manifesto states.
It continues, “… No, we are not suddenly starving to death; we are slowly but surely malnourishing ourselves to death.”
Growing Power urges people to take back the power and control and encourages the government to stop paying large subsidies to “Big Corn, Big Soy and Big Chem to use prime farmland to grow fuel, plastics and fructose instead of food.”
Allen said, “If people can grow safe, healthy, affordable food, if they have access to land and clean water, this is transformative on every level in a community. I believe we cannot have healthy communities without a healthy food system.”
From sports to farming
Allen has told his story many times in workshops, on television, at political forums, in the press and now, with the help of journalist Charles Wilson, in his memoir, “The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities.” The book arrives from Gotham in paperback as the operation that became Growing Power marks its 20th anniversary.
With the book, Allen adds critical literary praise to a long list of awards and recognitions. Writing on the back cover, former President Bill Clinton says Allen “has shown us a new type of heroism. Through ‘The Good Food Revolution,’ Allen recounts his effort to reclaim his family’s heritage and, in doing so, confronts lingering disparities in racial and economic justice. As the champion of a new and promising movement, Allen is skillfully leading Americans to face one of our greatest domestic issues – our health.”
Allen grew up outside of Washington, D.C., on a small farm in Maryland, where he learned from his father how to farm and hunt and, from his mother, how to share what was harvested from the garden and placed on the supper table.
The family was poor but “never short of food,” Allen said. “We always had tremendous amounts of food and we could share that with family and extended family.”
He left the farm to break records and a color barrier at the University of Miami, where he was the first African-American scholarship athlete at the school. He went on to play pro basketball and was playing ball in Belgium when he reconnected with his farm roots and grew food for family and friends in a small garden.
Allen continued to grow the type of vegetables he grew up on when he and his family returned to the United States and settled in Oak Creek, his wife’s hometown and the site of her family farm.
Allen was earning a living with Procter & Gamble and selling some of his Oak Creek produce at markets when he came across those now historic greenhouses on Milwaukee’s north side near the Westlawn community.
“I bought that land to sell my farm produce on,” Allen said. “Coming from a business background, I know it’s location, location, location. It was a very busy street between two freeways, a food desert, a great place to be.”
The focus broadened when Allen was asked to help some neighborhood kids with an organic vegetable garden. That fledgling community effort became the Youth Corps, and Allen’s small produce operation sprouted an organization that took root, matured, bloomed and thrived.
“I guess we’ve reached the point where more and more people have become more and more interested in changing the food system,” Allen said on a recent summer morning between chores. “We went from where it seemed just a few people had these concerns to where millions of people are interested in better food.”
Today, Allen works with about 65 staff, 25 interns and thousands of volunteers, and Growing Power is involved in:
• Aquaponics, using chemical-free systems that support more than 100,000 tilapia and perch and grow edible crops.
• Composting and vermiculture, using 20 million pounds of food waste – collected from grocery stores and restaurants, breweries and coffee houses – to generate energy and fertilizer.
• Livestock, raising more than 500 egg-laying hens, a dairy goat herd, bees, ducks and turkeys.
• Youth development, conducting year-round training in Milwaukee and elsewhere.
• Education, teaching thousands of people every year about community-based food projects and urban agriculture.
• Food policy development, working with local, state and national governments and also organizations on nutrition programs, wellness campaigns and environmental efforts.
• Food production and distribution, distributing more than 400 Farm-to-City Market Baskets a week, managing the Rainbow Farmer’s Cooperative, working multiple farm stands and serving healthy snacks to school children.
“It’s like putting together a puzzle,” Allen said. “We just started adding more pieces and now this is where we are” – the largest nonprofit farming enterprise in the country.
Partners Kathy and Patty Mannix-Pearsal of Madison toured Growing Power’s Community Food Center last year.
“I’d been dealing with some health issues and we heard about the Growing Power workshops,” Patty Mannix-Pearsal said. “We went, and now we’ve got a garden growing that provides us plenty, and neighbors too.”
“Mr. Allen, he’s like Willy Wonka,” Kathy Mannix-Pearsal said, remembering the visit. “And the food center is a magical place.”
Get connected: Growing Power Inc.: Mission: To inspire communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound, creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time. 5500 W. Silver Spring Drive, Milwaukee, 414-527-1546, www.growingpower.org.