EVERETT, Wash. — Will Allen says the food system is broken, and he has big plans to fix it.
Speaking at the Nov. 21 Focus on Farming Conference, Allen described how he is making agriculture work in urban environments. In the 21 years since starting his first Growing Power pilot project in Milwaukee, Wis., he has developed and brought technical training to cities in the U.S., Africa, Ukraine and Macedonia.
Everywhere he goes, he see parking lots, warehouses and rooftops as potential farmland, “wherever we can find places to grow food.” Using techniques of composting, aquaculture and vermiculture, Allen has helped community food projects succeed in virtually every environment.
Starting with a derelict plant nursery on the north side of Milwaukee, Growing Power has spread compost and knowledge, training community farmers through Regional Outreach Training Centers in Brooklyn, Detroit and more than a dozen other cities.
Allen grew up on a small vegetable farm in Rockville, Md., and comes from a family with 400 years of farming in its history. He played basketball for the University of Miami and was drafted in 1971 by the Baltimore Bullets of the NBA.
After playing pro basketball and a career in marketing, Allen invested in that Milwaukee nursery. As he worked to bring job training for at-risk youths into urban areas, he said, he discovered that becoming a farmer is harder than becoming a professional athlete. Like athletes, farmers try to improve every year.
“It’s a passion, something you don’t consider work or a job,” he said.
Food security to Allen means more than having food to eat, it means community health.
“Good food should be our medicine,” he said, noting that some insurance companies in Madison, Wis., pay half their clients’ cost for membership in community-supported agriculture programs. “To fix the health-care crisis, we grow healthy people.”
Linda Neunzig, agricultural coordinator for Snohomish County and master of ceremonies for the conference, said cities are “untapped resources.”
“There’s so much interest. We have so much urban ag already,” Neunzig said. “There’s Seattle Tilth, some in Tacoma (and) rooftop gardens on the new food hub under construction in Everett.”
As Growing Power moves into neighborhoods, conditions change, Allen said. Street corners that used to belong to drug dealers become what he calls “flower explosions.” Community food centers become learning centers and retail opportunities. Workshops reach out to involve youths and the entire community.
“We celebrate food,” he said.
Though conditions in Northern cities make winter production challenging, Allen looked at the mild climate in Western Washington and said, “There’s no excuse not to grow year-round in this area.”
Food that is based on the three P’s — People, Planet and Profit — he said, helps rebuild the economy, benefits the ecosystem and improves communities.
“People go to bed hungry, and we can fix this,” he said. “If we don’t fix the system, the species will not survive.”
About Will Allen
• 2008: Named a John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellow and received a “genius grant.”
• 2010: Joined First Lady Michelle Obama in launching her program against childhood obesity.
• 2010: Named one of Time magazine’s 100 World’s Most Influential People.
• 2011: Named one of the World’s Most Powerful Foodies by Forbes Magazine and Michael Pollan.
• 2012: Received the NEA Security Benefit Corp. Award for outstanding service to public education.