In mid-September, 17 Indianapolis residents were among the 1,500 people who traveled to Milwaukee, Wis., with a common goal: to learn about urban agriculture from a veteran who has been growing food in cities for more than 15 years.
At 61, Will Allen is a towering figure in the urban agriculture movement - figuratively and literally. A former pro basketball player, he founded Growing Power in 1995, a non-profit group whose mission is to make fresh produce not only available for all, but also affordable.
A visit to Growing Power is like encountering an oasis in an urban food desert. On three acres, everywhere you look, something is growing: Mushrooms, greens, worms, goats, chickens even fish are part of the system Allen has developed to maximize food production in small spaces. The only thing growing faster than Growing Power's plants and animals is Allen's list of accolades: more than 35 awards since 1998, including a "Genius Grant," by the John D. and Katherine T. McArthur Foundation in 2008.
Allen is scheduled to join renowned author and activist Frances Moore Lappé for a public conversation on Nov. 13 part of this year's Spirit & Place Festival. Allen's participation was made possible in part by Manual High School, as well as Global Peace Initiatives at the invitation of its director, Linda Proffit.
Over the years, Allen has extended Growing Power's reach through eight Regional Outreach Training Centers (ROTC), most recently in Louisville. According to Proffit, she and her organizational partners are talking with Allen about the process of bringing a ROTC to Indianapolis. (For more information about Growing Power, see www.growingpower.org.)
In advance of his visit, Allen spoke with NUVO by telephone about his work as he traveled to the Detroit, Mich., ROTC to lead a weekend workshop.
NUVO: How did food become a justice issue?
WILL ALLEN: From my perspective, if we don't have adequate food or if folks don't have access to food, it becomes a social justice issue because everybody should have access to good food (the) same type of good food, it shouldn't be categories of different types of foods, for poor people versus middle income folks. If you're at the lower end of the income spectrum, it's a valid, proven fact that (those) people eat the worst food and we have to correct that.
NUVO: How do you change a system where people are priced out of access to good food?
ALLEN: Ways folks can have access is through community gardens, growing food in their back yards, front yards, on their balconies. I'm not saying they can grow all their food, but they can supplement their food bill by growing some of their own food. Not everyone is going to grow their own food, so they have to go to farmers' markets.
When people say "I can't afford a (community supported agriculture) bag of food", like we sell a bag of food, 20 pounds for $16 - if people say they can't afford that, but at the same time you see them walk across the street and spend $40 on a carton of cigarettes, then you wonder. When we sell our food, we make sure that it's reasonably priced and we don't subsidize, because I want people to feel dignified when they purchase food. When you go to a pantry and somebody hands you a bag of food, that's not very dignified.
NUVO: In Milwaukee, you said this work was a spiritual practice. Can you say more?
ALLEN: I think everybody's connected to the soil. Some people don't want to recognize that, but we are connected to the soil because we're eating food that comes from the soil and that's where we're going some day. You can really feel it in your bones and your soul once you recognize that. Your life changes in a lot of positive ways.
NUVO: What is your vision for urban food production?
ALLEN: I look at it from a total multicultural approach. It's not just black folks or white folks, it's everybody getting connected to food. That's the way our organization is structured. And when we have events like that gathering of 1,500 people, you see that multiculturalism at work. In our poorer communities, unfortunately, we've pulled our grocery stores out and there's very little access to good food. In the future, as we grow these food systems inside communities, it's going to create thousands of jobs if we do it right. We can grow those communities through food because the food system creates more jobs than any other industry. Why can't poor people become more prosperous by participating?
NUVO: How do you explain the increased hunger for learning how to grow food?
ALLEN: A lot of that has to do with the folks who have been working in this field for many, many years, plus all of the food scares that we've had and the excitement of folks picking up a newspaper or a magazine, or reading a book by Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, and other books) or looking at documentaries about food. Of course, the first lady, Michelle Obama, endorsing healthy food by the way their family consumes food and having the garden at the White House has really helped to move millions of people into wanting to grow food, to be more like her and her family. A lot of different forces came together and that has helped move this into what I call a "Good Food Revolution".
NUVO: What is the Good Food Revolution?
ALLEN: We're at that stage now where we've seen that shift from over-60-year- old-folks to under-40-year-old folks joining the revolution. We're passing it on to a younger generation now. I think that is one of the major things that has happened over the past five or six years. And the fact that many people of color have joined the revolution people that once said, "I'm not going to do that slave labor anymore." I don't hear that anymore. I think we've moved from a movement to a revolution. It's growing every day, getting healthy food into our schools, growing food on school properties. People are wanting to go back to the old days when their families grew food.
NUVO: You've been doing this work a long time, what inspires you to continue?
ALLEN: I grew up doing it on a farm outside of Washington, D.C., in Maryland, where we used to grow lots of food, and we used to feed lots of family and extended family.
The young people inspire me because they're the ones who're all excited about this work. The idea that we can get our food system changed, that it will help with climate change, local food systems. We don't have to ship our food. (I'm inspired) when I see people get healthier by eat- ing good food, losing weight. This obesity situation is really hurting our youth. (I'm inspired) to see them change by eating good food. I've seen it happen within our organization I see people who hardly ever get sick. We have very low absenteeism because people get a market basket every week. They get lots of exercise. So I know it works.
NUVO: What final things should the people of Indianapolis know?
ALLEN: This is now a revolution and they need to be a part of it. We need to have everybody at the table. We can't have a sustainable Indianapolis or sustainable communities without a sustainable food system. One of the greatest joys in life is to eat good food.