Will Allen: ‘It’s time for action’

November 11, 2009 at 10:16 pm 9 comments

Will Allen is a giant man with a soft voice, and about 600 slides that will make your head spin. But his message is a clear clarion call.

“Our food system is really broken,” he told a packed house of diverse farmers and real-food activists at the McKimmon Center in Raleigh Monday night.  “We’ve talked about it for a long time. We’ve done the feasibility studies. We know what the problem is. It’s time to go into action.”

The “good-food movement” that was seeded in the 1960s and ’70s has sprouted into a  revolution, he said, as consumer demand for healthy cuisine catches up with concerns about climate change.

But there are challenges.  “We all need to eat, ” he said. “But we don’t have enough farmers, enough land, and enough infrastructure” to bring fresh local food to everyone.

A former basketball player, Allen began tackling these challenges in 1993 when  he bought the last working farm in Milwaukee. He thought he was just going to grow food for his family, and maybe the farmer’s markets. But then he began trying to figure out how to address the food deserts of the inner city.

That’s when he founded Growing Power, a nonprofit in Milwaukee and Chicago, and began addressing the local food system from the soil up.

First, he launched a massive vermi-compost system that relies on a mix of garbage, leaves and thousands of red worms. His rich compost can turn even the worst city soil into a productive garden.  The worm castings are sold as fertilizer to local farmers and gardeners, bringing revenue to the project.

 “It’s all about the soil,” Allen said. “Worms are our livestock.”

Soon he enlisted local kids to help him plant flower and food gardens all over the city, at recreational centers, housing projects, rooftops,  cemeteries, along sidewalks and  in abandoned lots where drug dealers were hanging out. Kids love worms, and it’s hard to sell drugs where folks are planting gardens, he said.

Allen realized that urban farming had to be intense because land was scarce and there were many people to feed.  He constructed a two-acre hyper-intensive, year-round farm  that is bringing real food to low-income neighborhoods and real hope to small scale farmers, 365 days a year. 

His greenhouses utilize a vertical connected loop with microgreens, herbs, lettuce and vegetables growing on one level, filtering water and nutrients to tanks below feeding Great Lake Perch and Tilapia.  The structures are primarily warmed by the heat generated by a thick layer of compost at the base. It’s a perfect closed system that feeds itself, grows greens and protein, and uses very little energy.

Growing Power also raises bees, goats, chickens, ducks and heirloom turkeys right in the city.  Of course the animal wastes go into the compost enterprise.

Allen has established a co-op, a CSA,  and an urban food center that sells produce from 300 area farms.

“We can drop healthy food in every community, using food stamps, WIC or cash,” he said. “It allows everyone access to the same food.”

Finally, he developed an anerobic digester, a massive cylinder that grinds waste into slurry, creating methane gas to generate enough electricity to power the farms and sell excess back to the utility company.

He is engaging and educating a new generation about the importance of fresh, healthy food — showing them how to grow and market it. He encourages them to get their hands dirty, work hard, and stay in school for the long haul, so they can become innovators too.

His projects bring people of all ages and cultures together, and Monday’s diverse lecture crowd was a great example.  It included sustainable farmers, community gardeners, entrepreneurs and activists of all backgrounds, and more  teens than I have seen at other such gatherings.  Allen spoke at a high school in Goldsboro earlier in the day. And he was planning to drive three hours to Virginia Monday night so that he could talk to another large group on Tuesday.

Allen’s goal is to engage many more people in growing healthy food for themselves and their communities.  “We need 50 million people growing food,”  in gardens, on farms and in pots on their patios, he said.

Last year he won a MacArthur “Genius” Award.  With a larger public platorm, he is also calling attention to the need for policy changes, including a new Farm Bill, one that would ensure public support for sustainable agriculture, so that farming is more viable for more people.

“We just need an assist,” he said.  “Like in basketball.”

— Allen’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and Burt’s Bees with support from N.C. A & T University and many local farm and food enterprises.

Entry filed under: Events, Sustainable Farming, Sustainable Food, Uncategorized, Urban Farming. Tags: , , , .

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kelly Velotta  |  November 12, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    I first learned out Will Allen while watching “Fresh”. He is such an inspiration, I wish I could have made it to this event. Thanks for the re-cap.

    • 2. sustainablegrub  |  November 12, 2009 at 4:34 pm


      Will Allen is awesome, check out his website, so many ideas that are working for him and many others. I love your blog and just added it to My Foodshed blogroll here.


      • 3. Kelly  |  November 12, 2009 at 5:17 pm

        Thanks Dee!

  • […] Will Allen: It’s time for action – Sustainable Grub […]

    • 5. sustainablegrub  |  November 13, 2009 at 9:38 am

      Thanks for the link and the excellent coverage of Will Allen’s visit.

      • 6. bill844  |  November 13, 2009 at 11:08 pm

        Great article on Will Allen. Wish I had known you were going to be there. Would have enjoyed the chance to say hello.

        Allen’s message of food as a leverage to build community and bring people together was great. I love the way the lady in Fresh talks about being challenged about what she eats and how Allen has changed her relationship with food.

        He was inspiring. I wish his message had made it out into the msm. Thanks for helping folks find out more about Will Allen!

      • 7. sustainablegrub  |  November 14, 2009 at 2:14 pm

        One of these days our paths will cross I’m sure…..Will was inspiring on many levels, perhaps most of all how he brings so many different kinds of people to the sustainable food table, young, old, and minorities. I enjoyed seeing so many teen-agers at the Raleigh event. I was near the front about two rows in front of a row of Durham community garden teens (SEEDS/Dig) and another row of teens from Goldsboro sitting with Eva Clayton.

  • 8. Neal Laatsch  |  February 3, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Please add me to your mailing list


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