Urban farmer Will Allen

The pioneering urban farmer and founder-CEO of Growing Power, Inc. discusses his text The Good Food Revolution, his thoughts on “food deserts” and preventative measures against disease and childhood obesity.

Although he grew up on a small farm in Maryland, Will Allen never intended to become a farmer. After college graduation, a stint as a pro basketball player and a career in corporate marketing, he returned to his roots and is considered the leading authority in urban agriculture. The founder-CEO of Growing Power, Inc. (Milwaukee, WI), Allen received the prestigious "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation—only the second farmer ever to be so honored—and joined the First Lady in launching her signature “Let’s Move!” program. He recounts his journey in the text, The Good Food Revolution.
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Tavis Smiley: Will Allen is the founder and CEO of Growing Power, Inc. which has brought innovative ideas about food and farming to countries around the world now. In 2008 he became the only, I should say the second farmer ever to receive a MacArthur Genius Grant and was named to the Time Magazine 100 list in 2010. His latest book is called The Good Food Revolution. Will Allen, good to have you here.

Will Allen: It’s great to be here Tavis.

Tavis: As you know, I’ve been to your spot two or three times. Most recently last summer. I had a good time.

Allen: Yeah, well you know.

Tavis: And putting my hand in those…

Allen: In the worms.

Tavis: In the worms, man. [Laugh] Actually the fun part is watching that tilapia jump. When you throw that food in there. I had a great time at your outfit. How’s the project going in Milwaukee there?

Allen: It’s going good. We’re adding new folks to our system. We have 110 employees. And we’re going to be hiring another 150 in the next year and a-half. So, we’re growing jobs besides growing food.

Tavis: There was a controversial story you probably saw in the New York Times a few weeks ago about whether or not these food gadgets are real. And I was a bit annoyed by the story. Because it suggested, you know, try to suggest that food deserts are really, are really in existence. And if you go two miles this way or three miles that way you can find good food and fresh meat and fresh vegetables. Assuming that you have transportation to get three miles to get there. Which is why it’s a food desert in the first place. Dah? But leave it to the New York Times to make a front page story about that. What did you make of that story? Did you see that story?

Allen: Yeah, I heard about it. I didn’t actually read it. But that’s pretty ridiculous. When you think about, you know, folks having without cars. A lot of middle income today and lower income folks without cars, they have to travel to get their food. They have to go on the bus. And a lot of them are single families. A mother…

Tavis: Elders.

Allen: And elders, and to carry food, you know, over a mile is a chore. Especially with the kids and in our case at Growing Power we’re in a densely populated area. The largest housing project five blocks away. You have to travel 3-1/2 miles to the closest full service retail grocery store, east, west, north and south. And in the case of Milwaukee that in the wintertime it’s cold. People are kind of locked down. With the average family only having a day and a-half food in the refrigerator you can imagine what happens when you’re kind of locked down after a heavy snowstorm, ice storm in your community.

Tavis: Why do these food deserts exist in the first place?

Allen: Well, you know, we used to have retail grocery stores in communities all over America. But they started pulling out. And some of the reasons I think were ridiculous. Because all studies show that people on the lower income level spend a lot of money purchasing food. So, it was for a lot of other reasons that they pulled out. And it left this void but as they pulled out, some of the land that they occupied and now occupied by fast food joints. And also corner stores. Where, you know, the food is processed food and were low quality food. So consequently we’re seeing the results of that in terms of childhood obesity, heart disease and all the other diabetes is an all-time high. And we’ve got to do something about it.

Tavis: Speaking of doing something about it, how much more important now, or more important now are these kinds of programs like Growing Power, when you consider the growing rate of food insecurity in the country. I know it’s still hard for some folks to wrap their brain around the fact that in this country there are people who don’t have enough food to eat. But look at the people signing up for food stamp programs, etc., etc. Food insecurity in a very real issue. Talk to Feeding America, they’ll tell you this. But how important in what is called Growing Power about by other name, that these kinds of urban farming programs exist given the, again increasing rates of those who don’t have food to eat?

Allen: Well, we know it’s going to be really important for us to start developing a food system that really works. Because you know, tonight 1 out of every 5 or 6 kids in America go to bed without food. But unless you have communities where you have accessibility to food, we’re going to have these problems. And of course many of our young people are obese. I just read a statistic by 2030 they say that 42 percent of Americans will be obese or overweight. So these are real issues that have to be solved. And we haven’t solved them by our industrial food system. We haven’t solved it by shipping food from far away into communities. And then there’s a bigger issue around how nutritious is the food that we’re eating. In terms of once we take a bean or something off a stalk or a bush and it travels many miles and is sometimes 18 days before we get into our bellies, it’s lost 50 percent of its nutrient value. So we’re eating a lot of cellulose and it’s really, our food is not, our food is supposed to be like good medicine to heal us. And the food that we’re eating today doesn’t do that. And we’re starting to see the results of that; we have been seeing the results for a long time.

Tavis: As your subtitle suggests though, of the book it is The Good Food Revolution, the subtitle is: growing healthy food, people and communities. How do you do all those simultaneously?

Allen: Well, you don’t do it all. It’s a process in terms of starting with, engaging the community. Because these are community food systems that we’re developing. They’re not industrial food systems or people coming in from outside, and bringing food in. Or people coming in and telling and the community how to develop the food system. It’s really about the community. And the first thing you really have to do is engage the community so you’re looked at as an asset to the community. The second thing you have to do is grow new soil. Because our soil is contaminated with heavy lead arsenic and many other bad guys in the soil. So you can’t grow in the existing soil when you’re developing a local farm. So those are the two of the things you have to overcome first. And then you can start growing healthy food that grow healthy people that grow a healthy community. Because the food is the number one thing in our lives, regardless of how we try to push it to the side or minimize it. Without a healthy food system we’ll never have these healthy cities that all the mayors that I talked to, talk about by 2020, having these green and sustainable communities. But without a sustainable food system that’s never going to happen.

Tavis: I’ve seen you do this in Milwaukee obviously quite well. And for that matter you consulted on other programs like yours in this country as I mentioned the top around the world. But how you do this successfully since you mentioned mayors. How do you do, how do you engage a Good Food Revolution in urban areas?

Allen: Well, one of the things you have to quantify, you have to have a concrete project to show people. Because a lot of cities have policies that are negative in terms of developing the food system. So to do that I think the best policy change is to show policymakers that this does work. So quantifying a lot of things to make sure that you can cash flow these farms, these small farms. Instead of thinking about acres and hectares we think in terms of square footage. To be able to grow food very intensively in square feet. To be able to grow protein in cities. We can’t have large animals, so we have to look at animals such as chickens and fish. And of course aquacultures is going to be a major part of this resurrection of our food system. Because right now 50 percent of the fish that we eat is farm raised. And that’s going to go to 75 percent. Because of what we’ve done to our oceans, streams and rivers. And what’s happened in the Gulf and Japan and so forth. So it’s a tremendous business opportunity for communities. But we need to quantify these things. And that’s what we’re doing in Milwaukee. We have 200 acres of production right now on our 20 farms around, in the city and right outside of the city. But we really need to quantify it because all these young people that are part of the good food revolution that want to be a part of the good food revolution. We have to show them that they can cash flow. They can make a living out of growing food, but in a different kind of a way. Not like their grandfathers or grandmothers. And many of these young people will not come from rural farms. They’ll come from our colleges and our high schools. And all these community based organizations that have youth programs around growing food.

Tavis: When you think about urban centers you tend to think of people of color, 90 percent or about 90 percent of African Americans I know from the data that I’ve done and research live in the top 10 cities in this country. So a lot of people of color in inner city. I’m trying to understand how you get traction on an issue like this. Where people of color are concerned in the inner city. ‘Cause often times you think of farms, you think of, you know, white brothers and sisters out in the plains, out in the rural areas. But how does a program like this grab ahold and I’ve seen you do it in Milwaukee when you walk into your operation in Milwaukee you got young African American kids all over the place. College students, all over the place, kids who started with you when they going to school are now graduating, come back to work with you. But how do you get traction on this kind of program for people of color specifically in inner cities?

Allen: Well, one of the things, like I said, we’ve had the opportunity to work with these young people. They started at 8 years old in the community. And they go through our program and all the way through college. We try to find scholarships at different colleges. I have a scholarship program to give kids an opportunity to have some spending money when they go away to college, a couple thousand dollars. Because I remember when I was at the University of Miami, back in the late ‘60s, you know, as on a full basketball scholarship, but I didn’t have any money to spend. So I was on the same level as the other students. So I want to make sure that if we send this kids away, that they are taken care of. But we take ‘em through a whole process of learning everything that the adults on our farms learn. So by the time they come back to us and many of them do want to come back, we have to pay them a living wage. We have to anchor ‘em long enough in a salary that keeps them long enough that we can further train ‘em. And that’s what we try to do with all of our employees. We don’t pay ‘em minimum wage. We look at paying folks even in our training program a living wage. So that we can anchor ‘em long enough. Because you don’t grow a farmer overnight. You don’t grow a farmer in two years. It takes a number of years to really grow a farmer. And farming is different because we’re talking about food systems where there’s hundreds of different categories of jobs. Because you’ve been to our place, you know we have renewable energy going and hydroponics. And we make connections with corporate companies and we need folks that work in finance and over a hundred different areas. So it, this new food system that we’re creating across America is going to be different than our grandmothers and grandfathers situation in rural America.

Tavis: I could talk to you for hours. Let me close with this though. Since we’ve raised it a couple times in this conversation. Are you hopeful that through the Good Food Revolution or some other innovative program that we can actually get a handle on childhood obesity? I just saw the recent issue, one of the recent issues of Newsweek with a little baby on the cover. This says, look at me I’m going to 300 pounds when I grow up. Do you think we can get a handle on childhood obesity?

Allen: I believe we can. I’m very hopeful because I know we will. Because of, like I said, all these young people that want to get involved in this Good Food Revolution now for the first time we have over 75 percent of under 40 years of age. So it gives us a great opportunity. I think the first lady who I’ve had an opportunity to work with in her Let’s Move campaign. They said over 10 million new people started growing food or people that used to grow food got back into the game of growing food in the backyards, inside yards and on their balconies and so forth. Because the White House garden and the fact that when you look at the first family there’s so healthy. They eat organic food. So that really helped us, you know, folks like myself, an old crusty farmer like me and folks that have been working in the food system having that kind of support from the White House has really been very helpful in terms of changing the dynamics. And when you talk about these predictions, if we don’t change the system, that will happen. Because we’re already seeing it happen. I work with some severely obese kids working through Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee and some of these kids won’t live until they’re 30 years old. Because of the – unless they change their habits in terms of eating and exercise. So we, it’s really going to take all of us working together and we all have a responsibility to make this change to our food system that we have. To a local food system, so money stays in those local communities. And go back to the days when food was grown in the states where people live. Today less than 1 percent of food in most major cities is grown locally or regionally.

Tavis: Well, on a system the White House is always a good thing I suspect. But in his own right, Will Allen has become a legend in Milwaukee for them and around the country. Again, as I said earlier, in case you just tuned in MacArthur Genius on the Time 100 list of the most influential persons in the world. And a little birdie told me that you’ve done so well since you were at the University of Miami and they got you back this year as commencement speaker.

Allen: Yeah, that was quite an honor. Considering I was the first American, African American basketball player there in 1967 to come back and be asked by the board and President Donna Shalala was quite an honor.

Tavis: Well, you earned it, you earned it. And I’m delighted to know that. The new book from Will Allen is called The Good Food Revolution growing healthy food, people and communities. Will, I’m so proud of you. Glad to have you on this program.

Allen: It’s great to see you.

Tavis: Thanks for your work, man. Good to see you my friend.

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Last modified: June 30, 2013 at 9:45 pm