An urban farmer spreads some dirt in Minneapolis

Will Allen
Will Allen is the founder of Milwaukee-based Growing Power. He grew up on a farm in South Carolina, and even during his time as a college and pro athlete always felt drawn back to the land. Now 60, he has been working since the early 1990s on urban farming.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Will Allen is betting that the combination of compost, worms, and a lot of hard work can change the world -- and he's in Minneapolis to prove it.

Allen is an urban farmer from Milwaukee who is a leader in the "good food" movement. He's here to encourage people in low-income areas to grow their own food.

Allen is an imposing figure. He played pro basketball for a while -- the New York Times described him as "Bunyanesque." But the 100 or so people who greeted him Tuesday night in Minneapolis recognize him for what he is now, an urban farmer.

Allen is the founder of Growing Power, which began in Milwaukee, converting derelict city land into small, highly efficient farms. He now has operations in several upper Midwestern cities.

"Our integrated food system feeds about 10,000 people in Milwaukee and Chicago," Allen said.

Allen has been featured in films and magazine articles, and he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship last year which helps fund his work.

Allen was brought to the Twin Cities by the Women's Environmental Institute, now headed by state Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis. Clark, who is a nurse, said good nutrition can solve a lot of problems.

"The people who live in more impoverished communities have a disproportionate number of health problems which are often related to food, which are often helped by good food," Clark said. "Think diabetes and high blood pressure. What you eat makes a big difference. Sometimes the only cure you need is a change in your diet."

"Our integrated food system feeds about 10,000 people in Milwaukee and Chicago."

One of the first things Allen plans to do in the Twin Cities is develop urban farms in low-income areas. He talks about the problem of what he calls food deserts.

"My definition of a food desert [is] if you are not able to find healthy food within a mile of your residence, then it's pretty much an area that is a food desert," he said. "And there are many communities where you have to travel many miles to get healthy and good food."

Allen said for many low-income communities and communities of color, good food is not only out of reach geographically, it's expensive. He said many grocery chains avoid poverty-stricken areas. Allen believes it affects residents at the most basic levels of nutrition and health.

"The average person only has about a day and a half of food in their refrigerator," Allen said. "So it's really a problem that has to be addressed. It's really a social justice issue. We have to dismantle racism around the food system."

What Will Allen advocates is for people to grow their own food. He admits it's not a simple project. The first step is to get people excited and motivated. Next comes the work of creating the farm.

"Inside a city you need very little tools," he said. "But what you do need is new soil."

Allen said lead in the soil and a host of other contaminants pose a real health risk, so he works with communities to compost food waste to make new soil.

He's also a great believer in vermaculture, adding worms to the mix as a way to help break down the waste and add nutrients. It takes about a year to prepare the soil, and then it's time to plant. Allen says his system is designed to deal with the upper Midwestern weather.

"To eat this good food year round we're going to have to grow inside hoop houses, or high tunnels, or greenhouses," said Allen.

Allen's organization, Growing Power, has developed renewable energy systems to keep this as cost effective as possible.

The first pilot project will be at Little Earth of United Tribes in south Minneapolis. Valerie Martinez is the executive director of the Indigenous People's Green Jobs coalition, which is working with Allen. She said the project started today with a workshop on composting and vermaculture.

"We had 40 community members signed up, as well as 25 different people from other outside organizations," Martinez said. "So it's really about building coalitions to come together to make sure this really urban farm project happens here at Little Earth."

Martinez said a busload of people went to Milwaukee to see Allen's farm. She said the group came back excited about the possibilities for growing food, developing jobs and even preserving traditional culture.

"It also brings community together, to where you have elders in the garden talking to the young ones and teaching them our traditional stories, as well as why it's important to eat healthy," she said. "Because if you think about it, organic farming isn't very far removed.

"A lot of our grandparents and our parents grew up on farms and grew up with gardens in their back yard," she said.

A public reception for Will Allen at Little Earth served as a kick-off and fundraiser for the project. Organizers hope to see the first crops next year.

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