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Milwaukee's urban farmer

One man’s vision: to bring sustainable agriculture to inner cities.

By Olga BonfiglioContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 2009



Whenever Will Allen arrives in a neighborhood, scores of curious children seem to come out of nowhere to see what he’s about. His pickup truck carries spades, hoes, earthworms, seeds, and a truckload of compost – all the components needed to make a garden.

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Mr. Allen knows a garden not only gives inner-city kids something to do, but it can also feed them good, nutritious food and invigorate the community at the same time.

This vision of symbiosis between an urban setting and locally grown food is what prompted Allen, a 6 ft., 7 in. former professional basketball player, to purchase the last three farm acres in Milwaukee 16 years ago and invite inner-city youth to help him grow vegetables.

“Food is at the very foundation of community development,” Allen says.

His efforts have paid off in significant ways. Today his nonprofit, Growing Power, operates a handful of urban farms and community growing centers around Milwaukee and downtown Chicago.

In addition, Growing Power is helping to develop urban gardening sites and training centers in several other states and two international centers in Kenya and Ukraine. Its website, www.growingpower.org, posts research on its farming techniques as well as various how-to gardening videos.

Allen’s low-tech, low-cost farming approach has earned him a reputation as a leader in the urban gardens and sustainability movement and a “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Yet Allen doesn’t want to just grow food, he wants to build healthy communities. The strength of Growing Power’s success is centered on the philosophy that a community must literally be grown from the ground up.

“Every human being should have access to affordable food,” he explains. Around this concept of good food for all, Allen has built a network of relationships among neighborhoods, schools, universities, government, and funding agencies. “Everyone has to be involved. Everyone!” he says.

Hands-on education
Children are the immediate beneficiaries of urban gardens. By involving scores of youngsters in his projects, Allen hopes to give them a sense of purpose and belonging as an alternative to joining gangs.

Through Growing Power programs young people gain practical skills such as operating power tools and teamwork. They learn marketing by selling their produce at farmers markets.

And they absorb gardening know-how such as building “hoop houses” (greenhouses with arched roofs) and raised beds, vermiculture (worm farming), and composting.

Applying their reading and math skills in the garden also helps to improve their grades at school. As a result, an increasing number of schools are signing up for Growing Power’s six-week hands-on courses to learn about sustainable farming methods, entrepreneurial skills, and healthy eating habits.

The simplicity and practicality of Growing Power’s mission has attracted attention from the halls of higher education as well. College students from Grinnell in Iowa and Oberlin in Ohio have worked in Growing Power’s greenhouses, milked goats, fed animals, and made compost.

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