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 He describes the surrounding area as a "food desert" where the supermarkets and fresh food stands had long been replaced by fast food restaurants and convenient stores selling cheap, processed foods.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) www.growingpower.org/blog), 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.