Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Transforming Communities with Good Food

I sat down in the library with Will Allen’s book The Good Food Revolution and couldn't put it down. I can't decide which part inspires me most: Will Allen’s integrity, self-resiliency and passion; the incredible miracle of Growing Power transforming communities and providing access to healthy, whole foods in urban cities; the lives of inner-city youth changed in a positive way by Growing Power; or how people are getting their hands dirty in the soil again and learning that growing food is not slave labor but about learning how to live and survive.

In his inspirational memoir about becoming a leader in urban farming, released this spring, Will Allen, founder and CEO of Growing Power, Inc., quotes Booker T. Washington, who says, “Agriculture is, or has been, the basic industry of nearly every race or nation that has succeeded. Dignify and glorify common labor. It is at the bottom that we must begin, not the top.”

Mr. Allen delves into his roots. He tells of his parents’ escape from southern sharecropping during The Great Migration of African Americans from the rural south to northern cities. In the same way, Allen thought he was escaping his agricultural background when he became a professional basketball player and sales executive for KFC and Procter & Gamble. But in a series of surprising events, Will finds himself returning to the land.

“Yet the desire to farm hid inside me,” writes Mr. Allen. “It hid in my feet. They wanted the moist earth beneath them. It hid in my hands. They wanted to be callused and rough and caked with soil. It hid in my heart. I missed the rhythms of agriculture. I felt a desire for the quiet of the predawn and the feeling of physical self-worth and productivity that I only felt after a day when I had harvested a field or had sown one” (The Good Food Revolution 8).

In 1993, he cashed in his retirement fund for a two-acre plot next to the largest housing project in downtown Milwaukee. The plot contained some rundown greenhouses and an old farm building - the last in the city of Milwaukee - where he envisioned a place to sell his farm produce. He describes the surrounding area as a "food desert" where the supermarkets and fresh food stands had long been replaced by fast food restaurants and convenient stores selling cheap, processed foods. By hiring and engaging local youth from low-income families in sustainable farming, Mr. Allen transformed these rundown greenhouses into the headquarters of an urban farming network which has become a model of sustainable urban farming across the country.
Mr. Allen says that the farmers of the next generation will not come from the countryside but from the city  (Featured Video: Agriculturalist Will Allen (2008), and so we must engage people in the community and teach them how to grow healthy food and make it accessible to all.

His hope-filled story shows the power of the urban agricultural movement to grow not only healthy food but healthy communities. Food is the most basic human need. Good food brings people together through the range of human experiences. Food can unite, nourish, sustain and heal. The current movement back toward organic agriculture and sustainable farming is a huge source of hope for a healthier future for our children and for the earth. Growing food is ultimately about  the cultivation of life and diversity, the practice of patience and generosity, and the continuation of the earth and our species.

After setting the book down, Mr. Allen’s words still echo in my heart: “A lot of times we have an idea of something we’d really like to do, but we wait for the perfect moment to begin. I’m here to tell you that there is no perfect moment” and “All big things are created by a slow and steady accumulation of small, stumbling steps. Idealism can sometimes lead to inaction. We’re so afraid of doing something imperfectly that we don’t do anything at all” (39).

Mr. Allen's heart-touching story shows that taking those first stumbling steps of following your heart can be like planting a seed. You don't know what will come of it - but given the right conditions, it will sprout in more ways than you can imagine.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Visit to Ivy Hollow

The Mazda bumped and rolled painstakingly slow over the narrow, gravel driveway, the car rising over each large stone that protruded as if to ward off vehicles. "The rocks weren't so big last year," said the driver. But they seemed bigger and more forlorn now, like they molded together over the lonely winter. The car crept down the drive and around a bend, until its passengers could see the country home nestled in the middle of northern Wisconsin farm country.

A farm tractor and equipment lay strewn about, forgotten, not having been put to use for some time. Wild rose bushes climbed up a fence in the front of the house and the front yard was surrounded by a picket fence and gate. The grass was long and weeds grew up with it, but in this wild and untamed growth, there was a beauty. The grasses and bushes seemed to hug the house but not in a menacing, haunted way, blocking off light – rather in a veiled way as though possessing a secret, hiding a mystery. 

The man opened the gate and turned the key in the front door lock. His girl followed behind. A smile broke across her face when they stepped inside, into the high ceilinged, open concept house with wood floors and large windows looking out over the land. The home was filled with things of its owners, revealing that the man’s parents lived here for a long time and came back occasionally. This was the boy’s home.

The two of them stood on the deck, looking at it all, him showing her things, their light talk mixed with quiet silence and silence mixed with awe. He gave her inexpensive wine to drink, but to them it was as full and rich as the moon in its fullness. All this could be his inheritance or his own for a price. One possible future opened up before their eyes, almost too bright to behold with a taste as sweet and intoxicating as the wine in their glasses. Would this beautiful, enchanting place be theirs one day? Was it what he wanted? Was it what she dreamed?

On Ivy Hollow, fields of grasses lay stretched around the house, woods loomed in the near distance, and fruit trees kept company in an orchard perched atop a hill. Light and shadow danced on the long grasses, which rustled in the wind and moved like waves in all various patterns.

He led her down to the enclosed garden, fenced round with ivy growing up the sides. As they approached, they could hear the door of the garden creaking on its broken hinge and banging softly against the fence in the wind. Inside was a tangled mess of wild growth – weeds, burrs and bushes in a frenzy to take over, while flowering plants pushed their white blossoming heads out of the growth to prove their faithfulness. How much work, how much sacrifice, would it take, the girl wondered, to restore this to its former beauty or to fashion it anew?

Youth and adulthood mingled in the man and his girl like the mix of all wild growth here. Was he a child looking back at time, or a man straining his eye to the horizon? Was she a girl frolicking in the fields of her imagination, or a writer with hands nurturing the land and raising up a new generation? Was he ready to commit to such responsibility and did he have what it would take?

Perhaps, it was questions like these, and more, that were the reason for their thoughtful silence on the ride home, when just the sound of the Mazda humming down the country highway could be heard, and the feeling of something too immense for words could be felt between them in the touch of his hand.