MIAMI — Will Allen is a tall man. Standing well over 6-foot-5, the former basketball player is also a giant in the urban gardening scene.
Allen spoke to a packed room at Temple Israel on Tuesday morning, March 17, about the intricacies of growing wholesome food and the impressive agricultural conglomerate he has been able to create in Milwaukee, Wisc.
Growing Power is the non-profit organization created by Allen more than 13 years ago to help provide healthy food to inner-city communities. What the organization has been able to do is nothing short of phenomenal – getting young people involved, and more often than not, fostering a strong appreciation for growing food.
He has created a state-of-the-art, sustainable farming model within the Milwaukee city limits, and has increased Growing Power’s annual revenue from $200,000 to $2 million in less than a decade.
The organization’s Chicago Projects Office opened seven years ago, and has implemented several community programs. One of them is a community garden at the Cabrini-Green housing development, which has been singled out as one of the nation’s most dangerous. Allen said youth participating in the program might otherwise be involved in gang activity.
“As the neighborhood transitions from low-income “projects” to mixed-income housing, the overarching goal of the community garden is to help facilitate a thriving diverse community, and ensuring that present residents are not cast aside in this process of transformation,” according to Growing Power’s Web site.
Also, more than 150 varieties of heirloom vegetables, herbs and edible flowers are grown at the Grant Park “Art on the Farm” Urban Agriculture Potager, the historic site of President Barack Obama’s election night acceptance speech in Chicago.
Allen’s efforts were recognized by the John D. and Catherine McArthur Foundation last year with a $500,000 “Genius Grant.”
“Will Allen has taken the concept of the urban garden to the nth degree,” said Jo-Anne Bander, a Miami food activist and one of the event’s coordinators.
The Human Services Coalition co-sponsored the March 13 event with Temple Israel. The coalition’s leader, Daniella Levine, said her organization is working with several communities to create and maintain urban gardens.
Marvin Dunn, psychologist, Miami historian and creator of an open community garden just blocks away from the temple in Overtown, was among the audience members.
Allen’s connections to Miami are strong. The founder and president of the Rainbow Farmers Coalition is a graduate of the University of Miami, where he played basketball.
The 60-year old displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of urban agriculture; a term he said has been around for centuries.
“Nothing that we’re doing…is new. Urban agriculture has been going on for generations, centuries,” Allen said.
Black people have historically been involved in the process, although many abandoned the skill in the 1950s and 60s, he said, when they moved from southern states.
“Many African Americans had moved to the north, wanting to get away. Farming was not a good thing for them, and they kinda did not pass on some of those skills,” Allen explained.
But Allen’s sharecropper father passed on his farming skills to Allen and his brothers.
In addition to growing and selling its own compost, Growing Power generates at least half of its own revenue by offering workshops, conducting tours of its facilities, running a kitchen and selling its products and services to corporate giants in the Milwaukee area.
Becoming an asset to the community, especially to the politicos in a city, was an essential part of Growing Power’s success.
“Once you’re looked at as an asset, the city makes things easier for you,” Allen said.
Of his organization’s burgeoning business with corporate America, he said, “companies are actually seeking us out for us to – on one end – maybe start picking up their waste,” and on the other end, to provide food to their employees.
Allen and his team of 36 employees have developed a system to grow compost out of waste material, a component he views as imperative to the sustainable agriculture movement.
“Once you’re able to grow good soil, you can grow good food. And if you can grow good food, you can grow healthy people, especially our children. And then if you can grow healthy people, you can grow a sustainable community,” he explained, discussing the process that allows for the efficient breakdown of waste products that would otherwise be dumped at landfills.
Growing Power’s ability to introduce urban gardening to inner-city communities is bolstered by its increasing business alliances with corporate America.
Rockwell International, a global automation company, hired Growing Power to pick up its waste.
“After that, they asked us to start a farm stand in their parking area for their 3000 employees,” Allen said.
Similar lucrative developments have cropped up with Northwestern Mutual Insurance, Aurora Healthcare and the Milwaukee Public School system, which has hired Allen and his crew to provide 4,000 afternoon snacks of sprouts for its students.
Engaging the community is a vital part of creating community gardens, Allen explained. Indeed, as Power Point images of the Milwaukee compound were flashed onto the screen, residential homes were also visible, some existing adjacent to the facility.
The organization’s proximity to people’s homes seems apropos, considering its mission.
“To fundamentally change the food system, we need 50 million new people growing food in their back yards, side yards, community gardens, community farms, small farms around this country,” Allen said.
Photo: Will Allen