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Inspiring Communities to Build Sustainable Food Systems: An Interview with Growing Power Founder Will Allen

Jun 24, 2012 07:44PM ● By Linda Sechrist

The son of a sharecropper, Will Allen had no intention of ever becoming a farmer. His book, The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities, chronicles his years as a professional basketball player and as an executive for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Procter & Gamble, as well as his decision to cash in his retirement fund for a two-acre plot a half-mile away from Milwaukee’s largest public housing project. Once a food desert, with only convenience stores and fast-food restaurants to serve the needs of local residents, today it is home to Allen’s organization, Growing Power, and his preeminent urban farm—a food and educational center that now produces enough vegetables and fish year-round to feed thousands of people.

What was one of your main purposes for writing the book?

The major reason that I wrote The Good Food Revolution was to bring attention to the fact that a large portion of our population takes this nation’s food system for granted. Generally, when people think of food, they relate it to grocery and convenience stores, as well as restaurants. The majority of society has no connection to where or how food is grown and lacks the awareness and understanding of how deeply we are all connected to a food system that is failing us.

Food is largely about nutrition, which is why it’s important to eat locally or regionally grown food, which travels fewer miles from its source and loses less essential nutrients, which people need to maintain good health. My book brings recognition to what most people overlook: the important social value of food—“bringing people of different walks of life together at the same table”—creating strong family bonds, as well as a sense of extended community. It also clarifies the economic and educational components of locally grown food: green jobs and nutrient-dense food that helps children do better in school. Viewed from these perspectives, it’s easy to see that until we have a new model for a local and regional food system, and view nutrient-dense food as medicine we can take three times a day to improve our health, we can’t have the kind of healthy community that people are longing for.

I also felt the need to share my own story about how food has always been a powerful force that shaped my life, how it kept me connected to my family, helped me build an extended family, rallied a broken community and strengthened it, in addition to creating green jobs and meaningful volunteer work, in the Milwaukee Youth Corps, which is giving young people, from neighboring housing projects and within the community, a sense of value and purpose.

Why was it important to you to include the history of food production and the Great Migration?

I wanted the book to have a historical foundation so that young people today can understand what went wrong with our food system and how in a matter of three decades in the twentieth century, the African American sharecroppers that produced our nation’s food were part of an exodus—the Great Migration—from the rural South to northern cities.

In my early days of farming, African Americans in this community wanted to know why I was doing slaves’ work. They, like their ancestors that had migrated here, identified farming with mentally and abusive practices and wanted nothing to do with it. Of my mother’s nine brothers and sisters who were born in Ridge Spring, South Carolina, seven left crop rows behind for a new life in New York, New Jersey and Maryland from the 1930s through the ’50s.

Out of economic self-interest and to give their children a better life than they had, 6 million African Americans migrated from the farmland of the South to northern cities. Although the generation of African Americans born in the wake of the migration—my generation—got to live a very different life than their ancestors, they lost the agricultural skills that had once been their birthright. The downside of this was that in a matter of years, they went from growing and controlling what they ate to being dependent upon a corporate food system and unhealthy convenience food.

The shockingly high rate of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart attacks is our entire society’s wake-up call to dismantle a broken institutionalized food system, rather than building a bigger infrastructure to support the one we have. We need a new model, one that is better for small farmers, customers and the Earth. We also need to create environments that provide people with not just the chance for a better life, but also with opportunities to take meaningful action, which can heal their community.

What are a few examples of this in your book?

Growing Power is a wonderful example of how food connects people and creates a better environment that gives them the opportunity to change their life for the better. There are amazing stories in the book about how coming together around food changed the lives of Karen Parker, her son DeShawn and daughter DeShell, as well as Lulu Rodriguez, who have all been associated with Growing Power either from the beginning or as the result of a youth summer program. A broader example is the story of Sharon and Larry Adams. Also children of the Great Migration, they repaired the broken fabric of their former childhood community, Walnut Way, in Lindsay Heights, with a community vegetable garden on 17th and North Avenue, and a hand-cultivated peach orchard, which greened the neighborhood and helped set the stage for other forms of investment.

My daughter, Erika, who chose not to remain on our farm, left Milwaukee to attend the Art Institute of Chicago. She stayed to earn a master’s degree in art therapy from the University of Illinois. In the late 1990s, she offered to help the Fourth Presbyterian Church with the idea to start a community garden to heal the community. By 2002, she had her own urban agriculture project, the Chicago Avenue Community Garden near Cabrini Green, and had assumed the role of Growing Power’s Chicago projects manager.

Are you aware of other U.S. cities that have included initiatives for community gardens or urban farming in their 20/20 Sustainability plans?

Many cities have a 20/20 Sustainability Plan to be green and sustainable by 2020; however, the importance of an urban food system within the plan is generally ranked ninth or tenth, rather than first. An improved food system is rarely in any politician’s platform for getting elected or re-elected. I think we can’t get there without a social justice system that includes access to healthy food for everyone.

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

Linda Sechrist is a senior staff writer for Natural Awakenings magazine.