Why Eat Bad Food?

Farmer-in-chief of Growing Power challenges students to become farmers, change communities

March 1, 2012
Will Allen
Sustainable food promoter Will Allen speaks to a capacity audience in the Reynolds Theater Wednesday. Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography

Durham, NC - Will Allen has a straight-forward mission: All people should have access to fresh, safe, affordable, nutritious food regardless of income.

A former professional basketball player, son of a sharecropper, and leading advocate for sustainable farming, Allen spoke to a packed crowd in the Bryan Center's Reynolds Theater Wednesday evening as the keynote speaker capping a two-day food studies symposium at Duke and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Allen is the founder of Growing Power, a community farm and food center based in Milwaukee. He shared the tenets of his "good food revolution," a response to nutrient-lacking fast food.

"Ninety-nine percent of the food that comes into Milwaukee comes from over 1,500 miles away," Allen said. "By the time it travels and gets into our bellies, it's 7 or 8 days old. [Growing Power] gets food to customers the same day, or next day, so they're getting the full impact of nutrition."

Allen, only the second farmer to receive a MacArthur Genius grant, is working to solve the problem of how to feed more people with less land. His work has caught the attention of the White House. Michelle Obama called on his assistance for her "Let's Move" campaign.

Growing Power started in 1993 as a small non-profit run by volunteers but has now grown to a 100 employees, 20 farms, 50 regional training centers, 50 alpine goats and 40 streams of income. The farm and food center functions sustainably and provides healthy produce to local families, who would otherwise not have access to fresh food, by partnering with corporations, hospitals, schools and other organizations.

Wal-Mart, for example, provides some of the rotten fruits and vegetables for Growing Power's compost.

"It all starts with the soil," Allen repeated during the talk, describing his multi-step process for "growing soil."

One unexpected but positive consequence of the project, Allen said, is in addition to healthy food and jobs, the effort provides literacy and education for elementary school students, reduced crime, therapy for juvenile delinquents, happier people, and a stronger multicultural and multigenerational community.

"I predict thousands of new jobs will be created around food systems" in the coming years, Allen said, for people who research renewable energy, architects, carpenters, and healthcare professionals. "Not everybody is going to want to put plants in the ground." 

Solar panels and other forms of renewable energy power the project. The center also explores new techniques such as vertical farming to maximize space and using food waste to create methane. More than 1,000 farmers are trained at the center each year. In addition, Allen travels throughout the country and abroad to train farmers and exchange knowledge.

"Every city I go to they talk about these 2020 plans to become green and sustainable. I don't see how any area can be green and sustainable without a sustainable food system," Allen said. "Food makes us happy. We have more energy. It brings people together. [Growing Power] uses food that to bring people together who don't get along. ... We should do it in D.C. I know they're not eating good food."

Allen never thought he'd return to farming as an adult but found that he had information he learned from his sharecropping father that he could share with younger generations.

"Farming will keep you humble. One bug might destroy your whole crop," Allen told the aspiring farmers in the room. "You might have degrees. Some people teaching you might not have degrees, but they have a lot to teach you."

He urged them to replicate his model of sustainable farming and to scale it up.

"This is about our very survival as a species," Allen said. "Good food is medicine. We have communities that are hurting. Doesn't have to be perfect or pretty. But get started, because that's where it's at."