June 16, 2009

Local urban gardeners meet movement's godfather

Will Allen speaking at Wingspread Tuesday

It was just a month ago that the healthy food / urban gardening movement sprouted here, with a meeting at DP Wigley, followed a week later by the first public meeting of Eat Right Racine.

On Tuesday afternoon, the godfather of that movement -- Will Allen, founder of Milwaukee's Growing Power, Inc. and the winner of a $500,000 MacArthur Grant in 2008 -- spoke to a full house at Wingspread, defining the problem in no uncertain terms and laying out the solution he's developed over 16 years in Milwaukee -- producing jobs, teaching life skills to youths and, above all, raising healthy food sustainably.

How bad are things right now? Pretty bad, Allen said:
  • "Our food system is broken."
  • "More disease is related to food; young people are obese; we deliver really bad food to schools."
  • "In the '30s and '40s, people grew food in their backyards. Now we've industrialized the system; we grow food that actually kills people."
  • "All our soil is contaminated."
  • "Since the 1950s, our food has 50 per cent less nutrients."
" I'm probably preaching to the choir," Allen said, laying out some of the successes Growing Power has had, and giving his audience ample (healthy, organic, sustainable) food for thought -- a growing plan for the future.

Growing Power began in 1993 when Allen -- son of a Southern sharecropper ("We had no money or car, but we had the riches of plenty of food.") -- bought the last farm in Milwaukee, two acres that he has turned into the nexus of an international movement ("This is a mainstream movement," Allen said. "It's not hippies and tree-huggers.") with 14 growing sites in Milwaukee, public gardens in Chicago, conferences at The Hague, Netherlands, workshops, farmers' markets and co-ops, and on and on. (Click summary at right to enlarge.)

Tomorrow Growing Power will host the mayor of Milwaukee ("He'll probably be wearing a suit, but we'll kick some dirt on it."). Allen is grateful for "politicos... interested in the food system." In Chicago's Grant Park, it has a $50,000 annual contract to produce urban gardens -- the same cost of traditional landscapers. On top of City Hall there, he says, there are bee hives ... an idea he plans to run by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Growing Power has been successful working with large corporations: It picks up food waste from Kohl's corporate headquarters, where 3,900 people are fed each day; from Rockwell, where 2,000 are fed (and now have access to a farmers' market); it now supplies vegetables to 10 Milwaukee schools; it composts 24 million pounds of food waste a year -- mostly from food wholesalers whose shipments arrive unsalable, or moldy hay bought from farmers.

Growing Power manages to raise roughly $5 worth of food annually from every square foot of its land, some $200,000 per acre. That compares, Allen said, to the typical roadside farmer's yield of about $500 per acre. It does that with intensive "vertical" planting in its greenhouses, aquaponics (raising fish in barrels), and intensive composting.

Allen's audience learned more about worms than they might have bargained for. He is a big proponent of vermiculture -- the raising of worms to turn waste into compost. "Worms live over 50 years; did you know that?" he asked the audience. (Most, it's safe to say, did not.) "We have to treat them as urban livestock." Warming to his subject, Allen said "there are 5,000 people in Seattle now engaged in raising worms for composting." Good news, too: 10 pounds of worms will become 40 pounds in four months, and so on...

More importantly, if contaminated soil is the problem -- and it is -- worms are the solution. "Remediation happens; worms actually digest lead dust and e-coli." Furthermore, Growing Power sells bags of "Black Gold" -- um, worm "casings."

"It's all about the soil," he says. "It's not about whether you have a green thumb, or any other color thumb."

Allen also raises Black Soldier Flies -- food for fish and chickens -- and goats for artisan cheese; laying chickens, ducks, heirloom turkeys that sell for $30 apiece, and bees for honey.

Intensive production, is the answer, he says. "This is the future of agriculture."

What will grow here from the ground Allen fertilized? Well, we already have the Racine Urban Garden Network, which appears to have poked through the soil after the initial city garden meetings. So far, it has a website under development and a growing list of interested organizations. DP Wigley offers "market basket" shares of locally grown produce. Eat Right Racine co-founder Heidi Fannin is working on a "Food Miles" initiative, to tell consumers how far away their food was grown. Growing Power, which does not sell at any of Racine's farmers' markets, appears willing to do so. "We have plenty of product," Allen said; "All we need is a sales person." Looking around the room, it appeared many were willing to step forward.

The SC Johnson Foundation, which sponsored Allen's appearance, got his sustainability message loud and clear. Lois Berg, who opened the session, noted that this Wingspread Briefing was different in some respects from previous ones: 46 per cent of the invitations were sent by email, she said; the after-meeting survey would be conducted without paper, again by email; there were none of the usual 3x5 cards for audience questions -- wireless microphones were used instead; and 90 per cent of the food served at the after-session reception was locally sourced.

Allen gave one final suggestion to participants. Noting that less than 1 percent of the food consumed in most cities is grown locally, Allen said, "We need 50 million people like you who will grow food. Till up some of your lawn; grow it in pots; or on your fire escape."

"This movement is not a movement any more," Allen said. "It's a revolution."


  1. I'm an urban gardener and I've never heard of this guy...

  2. Anon 12:01: That's your loss; he's for real and well worth knowing.

  3. 12:01

    Will is a great guy and unlike RCEDC he is bringing JOBS good paying JOBS with his ideas.
    Check out Growing Power on line for more information

  4. Colt - you are correct. RCEDC is not fufulling their mission, they are essentially useless.

    Mayor Dickert - please close down the RCEDC and use the funds elsewhere.

  5. This really makes sense. Looking at the systems Will came up with on the cheap, I can see why he was given the genius award. I am going to look into the workshops they offer. The city council will have to get on board. This means allowing gardens and food growing on the cheap. I was also very impressed with the gardening on top of the old tennis courts at Park High School. I see alot of support for this movement.

  6. Mayor Dickert should look into putting such a project in place here. Will speaks all over and shares slides of his projects. Racine should be featured. Racine needs to be at the forefront of getting our people eating right and healthy again.

  7. Colt - How specifically is RCEDC not fullfilling their mission. Please give me examples of what they are doing and more importantly specific examples of what they are not doing. Missed opportunities etc. and please be specific. It is easy to level charges - lets see if you can stand behind them with facts.

  8. Do not waste your time with Colt. He is an idiot!

  9. 9:55

    Let's look at just three things.

    Uptown Art District. Empty buildings
    No Bid Contact. Web Page next to useless. How many artists have home to Racine?

    The West Racine Slum project. Lets end the Farmers Market that West Racine loves and put up (IMHO) slums great idea! Just what Racine needs more slums right.

    Why did RCEDC not go to the largest Wind Power event in the world and less then 80 MI away?
    The group the New North did and I understand got more jobs because of it. Why not RCEDC?

  10. Great article, wish there were more people interested in urban gardens maybe we would have fewer urban problems. The enterprise he has created is amazing, lets hear more about it.

  11. My momma taught me to take my hat off while inside.

  12. Urban gardening is a great idea, but statements like "we grow food that actually kills people" and
    "all our soil is contaminated" and
    "since the 1950s, our food has 50 per cent less nutrients" are scientifically absurd.

  13. Colt - If you are referring to the wind conference in Appleton...check your attendee list as RCEDC was represented!

  14. 1:59

    Thinking Windpower 09 the huge one in Chicago.
    Hear the stories of RCEDC in Appleton sigh

  15. Sorry 1:59 is Colt hit wrong key.

  16. 1:55

    There is research that supports Mr. Allen.

  17. Nutritional Values in Crops and Plants: Problems for
    Producers and Consumers
    by Werner Schuphan
    Faber and Faber (London), 1965

    A good place to start

  18. Colt, books written by an author and edited (or not) by a single editor is the way most book chapters or even entire books are published. This is NOT the same as peer-reviewed scholarly research articles in journals - real journals, not the Internet kind.

  19. More to come but something tells me if God himself wrote a book you would find something wrong with it.

  20. Colt - Obama published not a single article as Editor of the Harvard Law Review or as a professor, but he did publish two self-congratulatory books, from which he made millions of dollars. Be careful when you talk about God publishing a book.

  21. Will is an amazing person. He is also using gardening to end racism and bring justice. I know this is near and dear to Racine. Lets get with the program. I want to grow something.

  22. Food additives, it is criminal what they are adding to our food. Scientific or not I know this to be true. I cannot find an apple that tastes like the ones I picked off granny's tree. Why? This mushy green picked produce junk is not for me. We are obese and dying. Food is linked. I don't need a white coat to believe that.

  23. Food additives - OK , I'll talk about that one. Have you ever heard some supplement company spouting about "free radical scavengers" and "anti-oxidants" that will "boost your immune system"? Many food preservatives are there to inhibit oxidation of food components to prolong the foods' shelf life, so guess what - many of those preservatives have the same function as the supplements people spend billions of dollars on each year!

    I am aware that those fresh apples from Granny's tree tatsed better than some of the produce today. Were Granny's apples available year-round and in the quantities they are today? I don't disagree with having fresh fruit, but industrial, global farming does provide some benefits.

  24. Industrial global farming has a place, sure. We in Racine do not have to depend on it though. What about the damaging food additives? like the poisonous and addictive substances they throw in processed foods? no mention? This being a free country I can still decide to grow and eat healthier food. There is big money in those scientific studies. We all know this. It is the little guy who cannot afford to do these studies. Corporate industrial farmers can do them over and over again and get the results they want. Again, I do not need a scientific study to tell me that Will's program is more healthy for me. Granny used to can. Which is something else that we have stopped doing.

  25. What poisonous substances are put in food? Despite high-profile issues like bisphenol, and I'm still trying to find "truth" on that, agencies such as the FDA have rigorous requirements for the safety of food, drugs and food additives. Having said this, I'm sure home-grown foods are healthy and safe, plus they have a satisfaction component of growing them yourself. I used to get canned food from relatives and I agree that is a wonderful practice - a truly dying art.

  26. http://www.blogtalkradio.com/Green-Racine/2009/06/24/Will-Allen-

    His speech the first of two parts