Accessibility links

Will Allen Teaches How to Grow Healthy Food Anywhere

  • Erin Toner

There's one farm in the whole city of Milwaukee, on the cold and windy shore of Lake Michigan. It's not much to look at. In the front, there's a small farm stand and some grungy old greenhouses. Out back, you'll find turkeys, chickens and goats - and all over the place, big piles of compost steaming in the cool morning air.

Will Allen runs this inner-city, non-profit farm, called Growing Power. In a greenhouse that's heated by compost, Allen pulls back a long sheet of plastic and points to the plants underneath with pride.

"I just opened up a bed, and you see this beautiful spinach growing here, and it's Wisconsin!" he says.

Allen started Growing Power 15 years ago. It's less than a hectare, but it's incredibly productive.

Making use of every inch of growing space


The staff makes compost to heat the buildings. They use raised plant beds to maximize space, and they grow greens and raise fish using the same water. The farm sells a ton of food to restaurants and grocery stores. It also gives food to local pantries and sells fruits and vegetables to neighborhood families at reduced prices.

"We have minorities that are eating processed foods and getting diabetes, and people aren't living very long because of, you know, the negative effects of poor eating and poor lifestyle and so forth. So we've got to change that," Allen insists.

He travels all over the world showing people how to make what he's done in Milwaukee work in other places. The farm's also become a training ground for local school kids, interns and backyard farmers.

"We have groups that come in here and want to learn about vermi [worm] compost. We have groups that want to learn about how to put up greenhouses. We teach green house construction. We teach beekeeping. They come here for training around that. Then they can take that back to their community."

Awards for getting his hands dirty

Last fall, Allen won a $500,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He also gets invited to conferences by former presidents.

So, he's become a sort of urban farming celebrity. But you wouldn't know it. Allen says he still gets his hands in the dirt every day in Milwaukee, and he's always looking for ways to help people who live here.

Growing Power's newest project is with Rockwell Automation, an industrial parts company in Milwaukee. Every day, 1,000 employees eat in the company's cafeteria, and that produces a lot of food waste. Growing Power's started hauling it away for free. A typical load includes lots of stuff that actually looks like it's still pretty good, buckets full of celery and onions and a big trash bag full of lettuce.

Back to the farm, co-director Jay Salinas starts unloading the Rockwell scraps.

"Of course, a large part of it is compost," he explains, "but there's always something in here that we can feed to the animals, especially the chickens."

A family legacy for the larger community

Growing Power founder Will Allen says his passion for food comes from his parents. They made a meager living as sharecroppers near Washington, D.C. But, Allen recalls, "We fed people - our family and extended family - and we sold food. So what I'm doing today. When people say, 'So how do you feel about this McArthur thing you won, or this Ford Foundation thing or whatever you got?', it's really my parents. They should be the recipients of those."

He says he's working to get things back to the way they used to be, when people ate healthy food that was grown or raised in their own community.

This story is part of the Environment Report series. Support comes from the Park Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. You can find more information and share your thoughts at www.environmentreport.org.

XS
SM
MD
LG