Food+Drink » Features

Urban farming brings more than fresh food back to the city

Cultivating Community



Forget making lemonade out of lemons. Will Allen is building food systems out of abandoned lots. Give him access to three acres of open space in an urban neighborhood, and he can cultivate a flourishing system of vegetables, aquaculture, livestock, and compost that provides food, education, jobs, and social capital for hundreds of people. Allen honed his skills performing this unimaginable transformation at his urban farm and community food center, Growing Power, located in Milwaukee, Wisc. What started as a single urban farm-site at a run-down nursery has since become an internationally recognized non-profit that includes more than 100 employees, a 100-acre farm in Wisconsin, a 40-acre farm in Chicago, and 15 training centers across the United States.

The organization's goal is to "grow food, grow minds, and grow community" and in doing so, aims to transform communities into places where fresh local food is understood, demanded, accessible, and part of a larger shift in the economy. By getting hands in the dirt, healthy food in bellies, and knowledge in minds, many of the neighborhood youth not only gain a safe and productive place to be but a skill-set that can provide for them physically and financially. Using low-cost methods focused on efficiency, waste reduction, and intensive production allows individuals in urban settings to maximize their sites for high yields in small spaces. This small but mighty model has created a system that annually boasts more than 10,000 fish, thousands of pounds of vegetables, 400 yards of compost, hundreds of eggs, and honey that are sold to the community.

To increase the amount of local food entering the community, Allen also utilizes rural farm properties and works with other small farmers through a co-op he created. Will Allen's Growing Power model and his passion for sharing his knowledge and experience over the last 20 years has resulted in his receipt of multiple foundation grants, including the esteemed MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. Allen has achieved rock star status in the agricultural community, with appearances ranging from the documentary Fresh to an interview on the Colbert Report.

As a pioneer in urban agriculture, Allen took on the overwhelming challenge of addressing the issues faced in food deserts by choosing to bring the farm into the city. Perhaps more notably, he did this in 1993 before the term "food desert" had been coined, much less understood. Growing Power was launched during a time when our society had yet to realize the true cost of cheap and convenient food, 16 years before Food, Inc. was in theaters and Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food was in bookstores.

In Will Allen's book, The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities, readers can come to understand this journey. As the son of South Carolinian sharecroppers raised on a vegetable farm in Rockville, Md., Allen was no stranger to challenges facing small farmers, especially farmers of color.

Similar to most farm children of his generation, Allen was seeking a way off the farm, which in his case came first in the form of a basketball career and not long after a long career in marketing with companies such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and Proctor and Gamble. Over the years, Allen's investment in farming continued to increase while his enthusiasm for his corporate job waned. The turning point in his story took place en-route to a work meeting when a unique property for sale caught his eye. At the time, the site was a florist business in foreclosure with neglected greenhouses and abandoned buildings, but he saw the potential. It is from this site that Growing Power bloomed and Allen's full-time career as a farmer began. With his savings invested, a loan from the local bank, and several decades of diverse work experience, Will began the trial and error process of figuring out how to make his dream into a reality.

Two decades later, Allen focuses on helping other communities utilize the knowledge he gained through his experiences. His schedule is packed with trainings, workshops, interviews, and speaking engagements. And as the Lowcountry continues to build its local food system, many lessons can be gleaned from the journey of Will Allen and Growing Power.

Add a comment