A pioneering urban farmer and MacArthur "Genius Award" winner points the way to building a new food system that can feed-and heal-broken communities.
The son of a sharecropper, Will Allen had no intention of ever becoming a farmer himself. But after years in professional basketball and as an executive for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Procter & Gamble, Allen cashed in his retirement fund for a two-acre plot a half mile away from Milwaukee's largest public housing project. The area was a food desert with only convenience stores and fast-food restaurants to serve the needs of local residents.
In the face of financial challenges and daunting odds, Allen built the country's preeminent urban farm-a food and educational center that now produces enough vegetables and fish year-round to feed thousands of people. Employing young people from the neighboring housing project and community, Growing Power has sought to prove that local food systems can help troubled youths, dismantle racism, create jobs, bring urban and rural communities closer together, and improve public health. Today, Allen's organization helps develop community food systems across the country.
An eco-classic in the making, The Good Food Revolution is the story of Will's personal journey, the lives he has touched, and a grassroots movement that is changing the way our nation eats.
Willie Mae Kenner
She held a one-way ticket.
In December of 1934, my mother, Willie Mae Kenner, stood in the waiting room for colored people at the train station in Batesburg, South Carolina. She was twenty-five years old. Her two young boys, my older brothers, were at her side. She was heading to Union Station in Washington, D.C. She was trying to escape our family’s long history in agriculture.
I imagine her on this day. Willie Mae was known to be beautiful and headstrong. Many local men had called her “fine”—she had strong legs, smooth skin, a round and lovely face, and thoughtful eyes. She also had dreams that were too big for her circumstances. She and her husband, and seven of her nine siblings, were sharecroppers: tenant farmers who gave up half of the crop they planted and harvested each season in exchange for the right to pick it. It was the only life that she had known.
My mother held different hopes in her heart, both for herself and her children. She had fought to obtain a teaching degree from Schofield Normal and Industrial School, a two-year college initially set up after the Civil War by Quakers, to educate free slaves. She wanted to be a teacher. Her family noticed that when she was required to pick cotton or asparagus, she did the work without complaint. Yet she wore a long, flowing dress on top of her work shirt and pants while in the fields. It was as if she wanted to find a way to give grace and dignity to work that often provided neither.
From the train station in Batesburg, Willie Mae was trying to escape asparagus and cotton. At the time, the South was still in the thrall of “Jim Crow”: the rigid set of laws set up after the Civil War to separate whites and blacks in almost every part of public life. The 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson—allowing “separate but equal” facilities for black people—meant that my mother could not share the same train car with white passengers. She and her children could not even wait in the same area for the train to come. Her train car sat directly behind the coal car, where men shoveled the rocks into the roaring engine. The smoke of the engine blew through the car’s windows and seeped into her clothes. She and her two boys would need to use a bathroom marked not “Men” or “Women” but “C,” for “Colored.”
Her journey was to take her to the nation’s capital, where Willie Mae planned to reunite with her husband, James Kenner. His friends called him “Major,” for reasons I never understood. He had left South Carolina after falling into debt. During the Great Depression, the price for cotton had dropped to only 5 cents a pound— down from 35 cents only a decade earlier. Major had found himself owing more to his landowner at the end of the planting season than when he began it. Sharecropping had begun to feel like slavery under another name.
“There’s no money here,” he told my mother shortly before leaving.
Major found a small place to live in Ken Gar, an all-black neighborhood on the edge of Kensington, Maryland, ten miles from the White House. He sent word to my mother to come. Major was now building houses instead of planting crops. Willie Mae had never seen the place she was going to call home.
My mother left the South before I was born. I know from relatives that she decided against boarding her departing train at the nearest station, in Ridge Spring, likely out of concern that local people would talk about her. When I was growing up, she rarely spoke of her Southern past, as if it were a secret that was best not talked about in polite company. She told my brothers and me that she liked the taste of every vegetable except asparagus—she simply had picked too much of it.
I have wondered what passed through her mind when the train pulled out of Batesburg. As the locomotive edged north out of South Carolina, she would have seen from the windows the life she had known. She would have seen the long-leaf pine trees, the sandy soil, and the fields that yielded cotton and parsnips and cabbage and watermelon. She would have seen other sharecroppers at work, their clothing heavy with sweat.
Willie Mae knew how to sustain her family in South Carolina. She had learned from her mother how to bed sweet potatoes and garden peas and cabbage and onions in the early spring. When the full heat of summer came, she had learned how to plant turnips and eggplants and cucumbers and hot peppers and okra and cantaloupes. She had learned how to take all the parts of a hog that the men slaughtered and turn it into souse (a pickled hog’s head cheese), scrapple (a hog meatloaf), liver pudding, or a dish called “chitlin’ strut”—fried pig intestines. She had learned in the late autumn how to can peaches and sauerkraut and pecans and yams for the cold season.
She was leaving for a city where it was uncertain if any of the skills she had—or any of the dreams she harbored—would matter.
“From the plots of his Milwaukee urban farm to low-income communities across America, Will 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, confront 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.” – Former President Bill Clinton
“Will Allen’s remarkable story, told with eloquence and compassion, conveys the universal value of social justice and real food.” – Alice Waters
“Far more than a book about food, The Good Food Revolution captivates your heart and mind with the sheer passion of compelling and righteous innovation. Wow!” – Joel Salatin, Polyface Farm
“Will Allen is a hero and an inspiration to urban farmers everywhere. Now, with The Good Food Revolution, we learn how Allen rediscovered the power of agriculture, and in doing so transformed a city, its community, and eventually the world – with the help of millions of red wiggler worms. Told with grace and utter honesty, I found myself cheering for Allen and his organization, Growing Power.” – Novella Carpenter, author of Farm City and The Essential Urban Farmer
African-Americans fought for decades to leave agriculture behind. Why are you encouraging young black people to consider it as a profession again?
My own family fought to leave agriculture. Both my parents were South Carolina sharecroppers: tenant farmers who received only half the pay for the crop that they had planted and harvested. They were only two of more than six million African-Americans who left the South for northern cities during the “Great Migration.” They hoped for a better life. Farming was hard work, and it carried the stigma of slavery.
As I write in this book, the departure of African Americans from the land brought its own problems. One in two black Americans born in the year 2000 is expected to develop Type II diabetes. Our young people are now almost entirely dependent on an industrialized and processed food system that is harming them. That’s why I feel our new models for agriculture at Growing Power—where we grow fresh vegetables and fish intensively in the middle of cities–hold a lot of promise. Small-scale agriculture can help rebrand farming as an entrepreneurial profession. It can make farming attractive to young people again, particularly for young people of color.
What do you mean by a good food “revolution”?
As I travel around the country, I see an encouraging grassroots movement that is changing our food system. I see more people growing food in their backyards and on a human scale. I see communities that are creating co-operative grocery stores or farmer’s markets to link local farmers to underserved urban communities. I see folks turning organic waste into fresh soil and growing food in it. My friend Richard Cates started the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers, and he is helping to create a new generation of farmers. This “good food revolution” is a new model that is replacing the destructive elements of industrial, large-scale agriculture.
What is a “food desert,” and why is access to healthy and affordable food so important?
In the 1970s and 1980s, chain grocery stores pulled out of many inner-city communities in Milwaukee and throughout the United States. A recent study found that there were four times more grocery stores in neighborhoods with a majority white population than a majority black population. Many urban neighborhoods were left with only convenience stores and fast-food restaurants, and few options for healthy and affordable food. These neighborhoods often are called “food deserts.”
For years, people in the fast-food and processed-food industries have defended their products by talking about the consumer’s “personal responsibility.” The reality is, though, that it’s very difficult to make healthy choices if you live in a neighborhood in which healthy choices are simply not available or too expensive. It’s going to take a lot of different steps to encourage folks to eat healthier. But making sure that fresh, affordable food is available as a choice is a crucial first one.
People often consider the good food movement to be an elitist movement. What do you feel about that?
My attitude is that we need everyone in this movement—black and white, young and old, rich and poor. I recently co-signed an Afterword with Eric Schlosser to Prince Charles’s book, “On the Future of Food.” The prince offered an eloquent explanation of what went wrong with our food system—and what we can do to change it. In the years ahead, I think it’s important that folks in the food movement make sure their work is benefitting everybody—and not just those who are able to pay extra for food that is humanely-raised, free-trade and organic. The current price structure for this food means that it is often out of reach for people who need its health benefits the most. At Growing Power, we are trying to create models that can make sure that make sure that fresh, organic food is available to everyone.
Can you describe some of the intensive growing techniques you pioneered? Are these expensive to implement?
At Growing Power, we grow enough fresh food to feed 10,000 people on a 3-acre plot. It all begins with healthy soil. We create our soil by taking things in our urban environment that would usually end up in a landfill and repurposing it. We gather organic waste from partners in the city—coffee roasters, breweries, restaurants, supermarkets, landscapers. Then we create fresh compost. We then feed some of this finished compost to millions of red worms. The worms excrete waste that is full of beneficial bacteria. These “worm castings” are the best organic fertilizer you can buy. We then plant our seeds directly in pots that are filled with compost and topped with worm castings.
I think it’s necessary in developing new growing techniques that we keep the costs low. All of our systems are built with expenses in mind. For example, we grow some 100,000 fish at our facility— tilapia and lake perch. These fish are raised in “aquaponics” systems that circulate the fish wastewater through gravel beds planted with fresh vegetables. The roots systems of the plants absorb the nitrogen from the fish waste, and purify the water before it reflows into the fish tank. This allows us to grow fish and vegetables together. Some of our largest aquaponics systems cost us only $2,000 to build, using mostly lumber. Setting up a commercial system to raise the same number of fish could cost $50,000 or more.
What is your vision of what a new food system would look like?
At the end of The Good Food Revolution, I imagine driving through Milwaukee 100 years from now. In the city’s low-income neighborhoods, I see people who are growing fresh vegetables intensively in their back yards. I see independent hauling companies that are in the business of composting organic waste, and turning it again into healthy soil. I see young people of color who are running agricultural businesses, and who are growing fresh vegetables and fish in formerly abandoned warehouses. I see that the job of “agriculturalist” has become a respected profession.
Instead of fast-food restaurants in inner-city neighborhoods, I see cooperative grocery stores and cafes that sit next to urban farms. The food at these cafes and stores is grown fresh onsite and eaten the same day it is picked. I see urban hospitals that grow their own fresh food in greenhouses and feed it to their patients. Currently, we have two food systems in this country: one for the haves, and another for the have-nots. My vision is of a food system that works for everyone.
How might one get involved with your organization, Growing Power?
Visit us at www.growingpower.org. In Milwaukee, we have volunteers year round. We offer two-day workshops from January to June to introduce folks to our growing techniques: composting, aquaculture, beekeeping, and more. More recently, we have added a “commercial urban agriculture” program for people who are interested in starting their own urban or small-scale farm. This requires the student to come over five long weekends between January and May. If Milwaukee is too far away, we also run trainings at sixteen regional training centers throughout the country. Information about these regional centers is also available at our website.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Ideally, I hope people will be moved and inspired. It is a book as much about people as it is a book about food. It is not only my story, but also a history of African-Americans in agriculture, and the story of several lives that have intersected with my own. I hope people will put down this book wanting to plant their own backyard garden, or to eat a little healthier, or take part in other ways in building a better food system.