Turning Urban Lots into Lots of Food

Turning Urban Lots into Lots of Food

Turning Urban Lots into Lots of Food

Will Allen knows how to squeeze $200,000-worth of sustainably grown produce from an acre of poor-quality, inner-city land, and he is using this talent to lead a nationwide movement that is improving the lives of urban dwellers by putting wholesome foods within their reach. With minimal land, his nonprofit, Growing Power, makes fresh produce available on a regular basis to about 10,000 Milwaukee residents, many living in the city’s poorest neighborhoods where supermarkets are few and far between.

“A lot of what we do is social justice and making sure everybody has access to good, healthy food,” Allen says. “To me, that’s at the basis of community development. Good food makes people happy.”

Growing Power, established by Allen in 1993, received SARE grants in 2001, 2003 and 2005 to create an educational component for its Farm City Market Basket program—in which discounted deliveries of fresh produce are made to poor urban families—and to conduct “train the trainer” workshops in Milwaukee that have helped urban farmers, educators, city officials and others build a community-based food system.

This work helped Allen win a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2008, which has launched him into the national spotlight as a preeminent leader in the urban food-access movement. It has prompted articles about him in national news outlets, including The New York Times, and led to regular requests for his appearance at conferences. Today, along with maintaining a handful of farms in Milwaukee and Chicago, Growing Power offers training and outreach opportunities through partnerships in six states, including Kentucky, Arkansas and Mississippi.

With thousands of pots and seed beds crammed into every available square inch of its greenhouses and hoop structures, Growing Power’s production techniques are as ambitious as its community vision. And with the notoriously poor quality of urban soil, they rely heavily on one ingredient: compost.

Andrea Godshalk3 (NC-LW)

Each week, Growing Power workers collect about 100,000 pounds of organic waste from city businesses and—with the help of soil-building worms—they create mountains of rich compost. What they do not use on their own farms they bag and sell.

“Composting is the main thing,” Allen says. “You’ve got to grow new soil. Not just little bits, but hundreds of yards of soil if we’re going to grow this urban food revolution.”

For Allen, a community-based food system is more than just farmers selling their crops at urban markets. It includes teaching people how to grow their own produce in community plots, tiny backyard gardens or on balconies and porches. It also involves making sure that everybody—but especially the youth—understands what healthy food is. That is why, along with supplying produce to schools, Growing Power operates school gardens, offers youth apprenticeships and encourages children to volunteer at its farms.

“To be looked at as an asset in the community, it helps if you can work with kids in a meaningful way,” Allen says.

Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) FNC01-359, Farm City Market Basket (FCMB) , ENC03-071, Building with Community: Professional Development Training in Sustainable Food Systems and ENC05-087, Building a Diverse Food Web: Professional Development Training in Sustainable Community Food Systems with a focus on Appropriate Technologies for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Small Scale producers in Rural and Urban Communities .

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