Will Allen has the charisma of a professional athlete—which he was. He has the organizational skills of a business executive—and he was that, too. He’s also winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. Since 1993, he’s done what he loves best: returned to his roots as a farmer. But not just any farmer. “Social justice is wrapped around everything that we do—every step that we take every day is about social justice and food justice,” Allen says.
Allen is founder and CEO of Growing Power, two acres of greenhouses growing food fertilized with worm compost or with fish waste from the low-cost aquaponics system that he designed. It’s located on the outskirts of Milwaukee, in a part of town burdened with low income, and without full-service grocery stores.
Providing fresh food in an urban food desert is a big part of what Growing Power does. But it also is involved in more than 70 projects and outreach programs across the country and around the world. One of them, Growing Power Chicago, is run by Allen’s daughter, Erika.
Selected by YES! reader Regina Siegel: “I feel this is one of the most important issues today, and he has the answers right there in his home-made systems.”
Another, Feed Denver, is a research and education center for urban and sustainable agriculture and one of Growing Power’s 15 regional outreach training centers. Lisa Rogers, executive director of Feed Denver, says that Allen has a way of talking about growing food that makes sense. “I was able to approach it just as a human being who eats food,” she says. “I could actually start growing produce and jump into the ‘Good Food Revolution’ and try and make a real change in the community.”
The “Good Food Revolution” is Allen’s term for what he’s trying to accomplish. “I think it’s reached that stage that it’s now a revolution,” he says. For all that high-flying rhetoric, Allen remains grounded. He is “a kind and humble person … who really wants to get people involved. And he is the kind of guy who has his hands dirty,” says Anupama Joshi, co-author of Food Justice and director of the National Farm to School Program at the Center for Food & Justice.
The time is right, Allen says. “We’ve got more people hungry than ever before, even middle-class folks, so now is the time to take action, and actually go out and develop the infrastructure that produces this locally grown sustainable food system.”
Laura Kaliebe contributed reporting to this article.
How to grow a local food revolution.
The Spring 2009 issue of YES! Magazine, featuring Will Allen.
It all begins with food: How to restore the health and wealth of inner-city communities.