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."
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."