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On the Future of Food

March 9, 2012

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Will Allen: Growing Power and the Future of Food
Lecture and Book Signing by Will Allen


“If you can grow good soil, you can grow good food.”

That was Will Allen’s philosophy when he began his adventures in urban farming eighteen years ago in Milkwaukee, Wisconsin. The community food center that he founded on that philosophy, Growing Power, now serves as a model for how to grow food with no chemicals and no fossil fuels—and with favorable cash-flow.

Sponsored by the Center for a Livable Future, Mr. Allen spoke at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on Wednesday, sharing information and insight into how his farms produce a high volume of food in urban communities, profitably, and to the communities’ benefit. Labeled by some as an “urban farming visionary,” Mr. Allen is the son of sharecroppers from South Carolina, and he grew up on a vegetable farm in Rockville, Maryland. After a career as a professional basketball player, he went on to a career in urban farming, which has earned him a James Beard leadership award, a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, and a role in First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign.

Growing Power not only grows food, but it produces all the soil it uses in food production, composting more than 22 million pounds of food waste collected from breweries, coffee companies and corporations such as Walmart every year. The organization, which operates as a nonprofit, provides outreach, technical assistance, and on-the-ground training for thousands of volunteers, workshop participants, and community members. Having started as a youth-service organization that worked with kids from the juvenile justice system, it now employs more than 100 people, many of whom have a history of incarceration, and is growing, with plans this year to build a five-story vertical garden, the first of its kind in the world. The organization sells fresh food to local high-end restaurants, to Milwaukee public schools, and at farm stands in areas designated “food deserts” and “food swamps,” and has thus contributed to food security in the cities where it operates—Milwaukee, Madison, and Chicago, primarily.

A key tenet put forth by Mr. Allen is that urban gardeners must grow their own soil, and use that soil to grow food. Existing urban soil, he contends, is far too contaminated to risk growing food in. When you dig in urban areas, he says, “All you’re doing is stirring up lead, arsenic, all the bad guys in the soil. And the food takes up the contaminants.”

At Growing Power farms, Mr. Allen is conducting research—through practice—on many farming innovations such as aquaponics systems, vermicomposting, water catchment, anaerobic digestion to create energy, vertical farming, and more. The farms collect food waste and convert it to soil 365 days a year, and, with hoop houses, they grow food every day of the year as well. The organization has 40 different revenue streams, and generates 50 percent of its own income. The organization’s food production would bring in a positive cash-flow if run as a for-profit business, says Mr. Allen.

The farms produce and sell compost, compost tea, worm castings, 40 types of greens, fruits, vegetables, goats’ milk, artisanal cheese, eggs, and honey. “We’re adding 50 more hives next year,” says Mr. Allen. “We can’t keep enough honey.”

Recently, Mr. Allen co-authored an afterword with Eric Schlosser for The Prince’s Speech: The Future of Food (Rodale, 2012), the text of a speech delivered by Prince Charles of Wales on the principles of agroecology. Mr. Allen’s talk on Wednesday drew about 300 audience members from the Bloomberg School and from the Baltimore food system community; more than 100 watched online. About one hundred copies of The Prince’s Speech were sold at the event, and signed by Mr. Allen.