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Will Allen is growing good food for everyone

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 12/12/2012 9:03 PM

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IOWA CITY, Iowa —Will Allen's vision is a world where everyone has access to fresh, safe, affordable and nutritious food.

"My work is to make that happen," Allen, founder and CEO of Growing Power, said at last week's Iowa Organic Conference at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "It's really about social justice."

Allen's father was a sharecropper before he moved his family to Washington D.C. to take an industrial job, and he taught Allen and his siblings to grow their own food. After a brief career in professional basketball and a number of years in corporate marketing at Procter & Gamble, Allen used his retirement package to purchase the last remaining farm in Milwaukee in 1993 where he established the now famous urban farming and nonprofit organization, Growing Power.

Allen called his new autobiography, "The Good Food Revolution," because he sees a new generation of young people under 40 who want to get involved in the food system.

"There are thousands of jobs that could be created around the food system," Allen said. "We need more farmers and we need those working in renewable energy, and architects and engineers, and every occupation there is."

Many cities have thousands of acres of vacant land, and these areas are often without grocery stores, making them ripe for urban farming, Allen said. Because much of the soil is contaminated, new soil will have to come through composting.

"You farmers know it's all about the soil," Allen said.

In its 20th year, Growing Power composts 40 million pounds of food waste, including brewery, coffee roasting and fruit and vegetable, and carbon residue into high quality compost, and with 7,000 pounds of worms create more than 100,000 pounds of worm castings every four months. It grows vegetables, fruits, mushrooms and herbs, and raises goats, chickens, bees and fish, all in urban Milwaukee. Renewable energy provides an increasing portion of its power needs.

Growing Power demonstrates its growing methods through on-site workshops and hands-on demonstrations and has established satellite-training sites in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Mississippi. Growing Power also educates people through local, national and international outreach, and it runs multiple youth programs.

Food production occurs in the organization's demonstration greenhouses in Milwaukee, rural farm in Merton, Wis., and urban farms in Milwaukee and Chicago. Growing Power distributes produce, grass-based meats, and value-added products through the activities of over 300 small family farmers in the Rainbow Farmers Cooperative, and the organization's year-round Farm-to-City Market Basket Program. Growing Power sells to numerous restaurants and small grocery stores in Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee.

It is now working on plans to build a five-story vertical farm at its Milwaukee headquarters which will house an urban nutritional agricultural institute.

Building relationships is essential, Allen said. He engaged the community around his Milwaukee urban farm by working with the youth teaching them about farming and building and using tools. He helped them improve literacy skills by reading and writing about their experiences. He has built relationships with major corporations, such as Sysco, Wal-Mart, Miller Brewing, Kohl's, Lowe's and Rockwell Automation; schools, universities and nonprofit organizations. He also has strong support from Milwaukee's city and school officials.

Patience and passion are the most important ingredients.

"It didn't happen overnight, but if you have passion for farming, you won't give up," Allen said.