The Science of Sustainability

An Oasis Grows in an Urban Food Desert

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Will Allen with shovel

Will Allen demonstrates how Growing Power "grows" its soil from compost.

Will Allen is on a mission that begins with feeding Milwaukee. Through Growing Power, his urban farm in Wisconsin’s largest city, the zealous Allen spreads a gospel of urban renewal through growing and selling fresh, healthy food in a neighborhood where nutritious options are limited. Foodies and wannabe city farmers make pilgrimages year-round to learn about his successful methods.

In certain circles Allen is referred to as the father of "The Good Food Revolution," which is also the title of his 2012 book. In it he recounts a very personal story of reconnecting with the earth — a reconnection he would like to see made across urban America, and especially in African-American communities. He writes,

Good Food Revolution cover

Allen's 2012 book.

"[T]he Great Migration transformed the African-American experience from a rural to an urban one. The generation of African-Americans born in the wake of that migration — my generation — would live in a very different world from that of our ancestors. In that transition, we lost the agricultural skills that had once been our birthright."

His parents moved to Maryland, near Washington D.C., in 1934, glad to leave their sharecropping lives behind in the South. They settled on a small farm where, while working other jobs, they nurtured their own hobby gardens and passed their agricultural skills on to Allen.

But Allen was never enthused about taking on the hard work of a farmer, "I said I would never go back to farming. I guess you should never say never."

After noteworthy careers in basketball and business, Allen did return to farming, where he has undoubtedly made his biggest mark. In 2008 he was granted a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for his contributions to the urban agricultural movement.

Quest Aquaponics 5 story greenhouse 2

Architectural rendering of a five story "vertical farm" planned for Growing Power's urban setting

Growing Power now has a similar operation in Chicago. And Allen has bigger plans for scaling up agriculture in other urban areas, including a network of “vertical farms.”  He already has a design in the works for a five-story greenhouse and education center in Milwaukee. “This is a very important building as a model that we can study to figure out how these cities then can build 50 to 100-story vertical farms.”

For all Allen has done to transform his Milwaukee neighborhood, it seems like he’s only on the ground floor as he builds and broadens his efforts to spur what he calls “The Good Food Revolution.”

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Category: Biology, Environment, Food, Sustainable Food, Video

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Andy Soth

About the Author ()

Andy Soth is a senior producer at Wisconsin Public Television based in Madison. His work has included environmental, technology and feature reporting for the magazine program, In Wisconsin, as well as numerous Web projects. He is content editor for WisconsinVote.org, which was recently named best election Web site by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association. The WBA, along with the Milwaukee Press Club and the Northwest Broadcast News Association have frequently honored Soth’s television stories. In 1999, Soth shared in a national Emmy as segment producer for The :30 Second Candidate. Soth has an MS in Life Sciences Communication from the University of Wisconsin and graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in Art History. He has also attended the WETA Producers Academy and was recently selected a Fellow for the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources Asian Carp Institute.