The Good Food Revolution
The story of a remarkable man who fought during his youth to leave farming behind—only to lead a revolution in the way we grow and distribute food.
THE GOOD FOOD REVOLUTION: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities
By Will Allen with Charles Wilson
“From the plots of his Milwaukee urban farm to low-income communities across America, Will Allen has shown us a new type of heroism. Through The Good Food Revolution, Allen recounts his effort to reclaim his family’s heritage and, in doing so, confront lingering disparities in racial and economic justice. As the champion of a new and promising movement, Allen is skillfully leading Americans to face one of our greatest domestic issues – our health.”
– Former President Bill Clinton
In 1993, Will Allen cashed out a small retirement package from his sales executive position at Procter & Gamble and bought a plot of land with crumbling greenhouses a few blocks from Milwaukee’s largest public housing project. He had a simple dream: to bring fresh food to an inner-city neighborhood without healthy options. In THE GOOD FOOD REVOLUTION: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities (Gotham Books, May 10, 2012, Hardcover, eBook) Will Allen shares the story of his unlikely return to agriculture in mid-life, and his efforts to transform the food system in underserved American communities.
On less than two acres, he would pioneer intensive growing techniques and build the country’s preeminent urban farm — a food and educational center that now produces forty tons of fresh vegetables a year, provides fresh sprouts to thousands of students, transforms food waste into soil and fertilizer, distributes inexpensive market baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables to communities without grocers, and raises 100,000 fish in indoor systems that resemble freshwater streams.
THE GOOD FOOD REVOLUTION is Will Allen’s extraordinary tale of transformation of the cultivation, production, and delivery of healthy foods for underserved, urban populations. It is also a story of personal transformation. Allen’s journey bridges two disparate parts of the African-American story: its agricultural past and urban present. Allen was the child of sharecroppers and a product of the “Great Migration”—the exodus that brought six million African-Americans out of agriculture and the South and into Northern cities. He fought as a young man to leave farming behind. He sought a life in professional basketball, managed a discotheque, and worked for years as an executive for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Procter & Gamble. Yet the desire to farm again grew slowly within him, and he saw the potential of fresh food to change the lives of young people in Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods.
Access to reasonably-priced, healthy, fresh food provides a defense against the dehumanizing and debilitating effects of diabetes and food-related illness. In THE GOOD FOOD REVOLUTION Allen argues that if we can take control of the food system in our urban communities and if we can knit together the broken fabric between local farmers and our cities, we can provide a chance for people to live with greater dignity.
THE GOOD FOOD REVOLUTION is Will Allen’s call to action. Anyone can help. A garden in your back yard can provide the self-respect of being a little more self-sufficient in a world where we often are made to feel the powerless victims of the Dow Jones Industrial average, oil prices, the employment market, or the fates of large corporations.
What are you waiting for? Pick up a shovel. Get your hands dirty. Let’s begin.
THE GOOD FOOD REVOLUTION: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities
By Will Allen with Charles Wilson
Gotham Books | Hardcover | May 2012 | $26.00
Available as an e-book
Reading Group Guide available
About the Author:
Will Allen is an urban farmer who is transforming the cultivation, production, and delivery of healthy foods to underserved, urban populations. After a brief career in professional basketball and a number of years in corporate marketing at Procter & Gamble, Will Allen returned to his roots as a farmer, using his retirement package to purchase a plot of inner-city land with greenhouses, where he has built the country’s pre-eminent urban farm. He is now the CEO of Growing Power, an organization that develops community food systems. In 2008, Will was named a John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellow, a “genius grant,” only the second farmer ever to be so honored. He is also a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, and in February 2010, he was invited to the White House to join First Lady Michelle Obama in launching “Let’s Move!”—her signature leadership program to reverse the epidemic of childhood obesity in America. In May 2010, Time magazine named Will to the Time 100 World’s Most Influential People. In 2011, Allen was named one of the 7 World’s Most Influential Foodies by Michael Pollan and Forbes Magazine. He was named the 2012 NCAA Theodore Roosevelt Award recipient. He lives with his wife in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
About Charles Wilson:
Charles Wilson (collaborator) is the coauthor with Eric Schlosser of the #1 New York Times bestselling children’s book, Chew On This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food. Wilson’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Economist.
Q&A with Will Allen, author of The Good Food Revolution
1) African-Americans fought for decades to leave agriculture behind. Why are you encouraging young black people to consider it as a profession again?
WA: My own family fought to leave agriculture. Both my parents were South Carolina sharecroppers: tenant farmers who received only half the pay for the crop that they had planted and harvested. They were only two of more than six million African-Americans who left the South for northern cities during the “Great Migration.” They hoped for a better life. Farming was hard work, and it carried the stigma of slavery.
As I write in this book, the departure of African Americans from the land brought its own problems. One in two black Americans born in the year 2000 is expected to develop Type II diabetes. Our young people are now almost entirely dependent on an industrialized and processed food system that is harming them. That’s why I feel our new models for agriculture at Growing Power—where we grow fresh vegetables and fish intensively in the middle of cities–hold a lot of promise. Small-scale agriculture can help rebrand farming as an entrepreneurial profession. It can make farming attractive to young people again, particularly for young people of color.
2) What do you mean by a good food “revolution”?
WA: As I travel around the country, I see an encouraging grassroots movement that is changing our food system. I see more people growing food in their backyards and on a human scale. I see communities that are creating co-operative grocery stores or farmer’s markets to link local farmers to underserved urban communities. I see folks turning organic waste into fresh soil and growing food in it. My friend Richard Cates started the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers, and he is helping to create a new generation of farmers. This “good food revolution” is a new model that is replacing the destructive elements of industrial, large-scale agriculture.
3) What is a “food desert,” and why is access to healthy and affordable food so important?
WA: In the 1970s and 1980s, chain grocery stores pulled out of many inner-city communities in Milwaukee and throughout the United States. A recent study found that there were four times more grocery stores in neighborhoods with a majority white population than a majority black population. Many urban neighborhoods were left with only convenience stores and fast-food restaurants, and few options for healthy and affordable food. These neighborhoods often are called “food deserts.”
For years, people in the fast-food and processed-food industries have defended their products by talking about the consumer’s “personal responsibility.” The reality is, though, that it’s very difficult to make healthy choices if you live in a neighborhood in which healthy choices are simply not available or too expensive. It’s going to take a lot of different steps to encourage folks to eat healthier. But making sure that fresh, affordable food is available as a choice is a crucial first one.
4) People often consider the good food movement to be an elitist movement. What do you feel about that?
My attitude is that we need everyone in this movement—black and white, young and old, rich and poor. I recently co-signed an Afterword with Eric Schlosser to Prince Charles’s book, “On the Future of Food.” The prince offered an eloquent explanation of what went wrong with our food system—and what we can do to change it. In the years ahead, I think it’s important that folks in the food movement make sure their work is benefitting everybody—and not just those who are able to pay extra for food that is humanely-raised, free-trade and organic. The current price structure for this food means that it is often out of reach for people who need its health benefits the most. At Growing Power, we are trying to create models that can make sure that make sure that fresh, organic food is available to everyone.
5) Can you describe some of the intensive growing techniques you pioneered? Are these expensive to implement?
WA: At Growing Power, we grow enough fresh food to feed 10,000 people on a 3-acre plot. It all begins with healthy soil. We create our soil by taking things in our urban environment that would usually end up in a landfill and repurposing it. We gather organic waste from partners in the city—coffee roasters, breweries, restaurants, supermarkets, landscapers. Then we create fresh compost. We then feed some of this finished compost to millions of red worms. The worms excrete waste that is full of beneficial bacteria. These “worm castings” are the best organic fertilizer you can buy. We then plant our seeds directly in pots that are filled with compost and topped with worm castings.
I think it’s necessary in developing new growing techniques that we keep the costs low. All of our systems are built with expenses in mind. For example, we grow some 100,000 fish at our facility— tilapia and lake perch. These fish are raised in “aquaponics” systems that circulate the fish wastewater through gravel beds planted with fresh vegetables. The roots systems of the plants absorb the nitrogen from the fish waste, and purify the water before it reflows into the fish tank. This allows us to grow fish and vegetables together. Some of our largest aquaponics systems cost us only $2,000 to build, using mostly lumber. Setting up a commercial system to raise the same number of fish could cost $50,000 or more.
6) What is your vision of what a new food system would look like?
WA: At the end of The Good Food Revolution, I imagine driving through Milwaukee 100 years from now. In the city’s low-income neighborhoods, I see people who are growing fresh vegetables intensively in their back yards. I see independent hauling companies that are in the business of composting organic waste, and turning it again into healthy soil. I see young people of color who are running agricultural businesses, and who are growing fresh vegetables and fish in formerly abandoned warehouses. I see that the job of “agriculturalist” has become a respected profession.
Instead of fast-food restaurants in inner-city neighborhoods, I see cooperative grocery stores and cafes that sit next to urban farms. The food at these cafes and stores is grown fresh onsite and eaten the same day it is picked. I see urban hospitals that grow their own fresh food in greenhouses and feed it to their patients. Currently, we have two food systems in this country: one for the haves, and another for the have-nots. My vision is of a food system that works for everyone.
7) How might one get involved with your organization, Growing Power?
WA: Visit us at www.growingpower.org. In Milwaukee, we have volunteers year round. We offer two-day workshops from January to June to introduce folks to our growing techniques: composting, aquaculture, beekeeping, and more. More recently, we have added a “commercial urban agriculture” program for people who are interested in starting their own urban or small-scale farm. This requires the student to come over five long weekends between January and May. If Milwaukee is too far away, we also run trainings at sixteen regional training centers throughout the country. Information about these regional centers is also available at our website.
8) What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
WA: Ideally, I hope people will be moved and inspired. It is a book as much about people as it is a book about food. It is not only my story, but also a history of African-Americans in agriculture, and the story of several lives that have intersected with my own. I hope people will put down this book wanting to plant their own backyard garden, or to eat a little healthier, or take part in other ways in building a better food system.
What do you think? Leave a comment below. See our commenting guidelines.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.