by Karen Stokes
Will Allen is passionate about growing food – healthy, nutrient rich food that people need, right in the areas where they live. He is concerned about the health and well being of people who reside in ‘food deserts’ that lack access to fresh fruits and vibrant green vegetables, and he wants to empower people with the knowledge to grow their own food.
Allen is the founder and CEO of Growing Power, a nonprofit organization that helps to provide equal access to healthy, high-quality, safe and affordable food for people in all communities. Growing Power is a self-funded organization that sells products and services. They farm approximately 300 acres and have a year-round production.
“We’ve been in business for 22 years,” Allen said. “Growing Power is the largest infrastructure farm in the world, and it’s in Milwaukee.”
Growing Power directly addresses the many barriers to people have in accessing healthy food, especially people in urban areas. Major grocery chains tend to build most of their stores in suburban areas, which makes it difficult for individuals in the inner city without transportation to buy healthy groceries.
Exacerbating that issue is a lack of financial resources. Food insecurity, which is defined by the USDA as “consistent access to adequate food… limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year,” is a growing problem for families in Milwaukee.
According to the “Map the Meal Gap” 2015 study by Feeding America, 12.6 percent of the eastern Wisconsin population, including Milwaukee, is food insecure, a statistic that includes more than 188,000 children.
“I have a holistic way of thinking in terms of getting involved providing food,” said Allen. “I take areas that don’t have food and help them. These are things I do to help bring people together.
Allen grew up on a farm outside of Washington, D.C. in Maryland. He became a standout basketball player in high school and received a scholarship to the University of Miami. After college, he played in the American Basketball Association (ABA) and later played overseas. After moving on from basketball, Allen began a career in corporate sales and marketing which brought him to Southeastern Wisconsin. Tired of the corporate world, Allen began farming. Neighborhood kids from the housing project close to where Allen was farming began asking questions on how to grow their own food. In response to growing interest, Growing Power was created in 1995.
In addition to Growing Power, Milwaukee has several community gardens. On 9th and Ring, local activist Andre Lee Ellis uses the community garden to employ neighborhood boys. Urban farming gives Ellis and other male role models the opportunity to mentor Milwaukee youth about healthy eating, staying in school and the importance of community pride.
“I would like for the boys to see the importance of cleaning up, eating healthier,” said Ellis. “We are no longer accepting that this is a poor place or the worst place to raise a black child.”
Allen believes that these kinds of gardens are positive for the community.
“What we need to do is scale these kind of programs up all over the city,” said Allen. “One of the biggest problems we have in the city of Milwaukee is that we have a huge dropout rate.”
“Chicago has the same problems. We have a headquarters in Chicago and eight farms where we work with a lot of young people. If they are out of school, we get them back in school,” said Allen. “Because many of them have kids at a very young age, we want to provide them with employment. In other words, when you meet these young men and talk to them, and they’re hustling on the streets, selling drugs and other things, if they have a job, that would be something that would keep them away from those types of activities.”
Growing Power is looking forward to expanding for the future. They are currently starting a new, year-round farm to be located off of I-43. They are also continuing to be an innovative force both locally and internationally, and are developing the first vertical farm in the world on 55th and Silver Spring with a retail store on the first floor.
“The area is full of fast food restaurants, a retail store in this area will help in this highly dense population,” Allen said.
Another upcoming project is called “Homegrown,” in which Growing Power will work with the City of Milwaukee to plant fruit trees throughout the city.
There are nearly 600,000 people to feed in Milwaukee, and Growing Power is offering a solution.
“We would like to get more people involved to make sure we are all eating good food,” said Allen.
For more information on getting involved, volunteering, or job opportunities, visit http://www.growingpower.org/.