Why Eat Bad Food?

Farmer-in-chief of Growing Power challenges students to become farmers, change communities

Part of the Eat What You Learn Series
Sustainable food promoter Will Allen speaks to a capacity audience in the Reynolds Theater Wednesday.  Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography
Sustainable food promoter Will Allen speaks to a capacity audience in the Reynolds Theater Wednesday. Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography

Will Allen has a straight-forward mission: All people should
have access to fresh, safe, affordable, nutritious food regardless of income.

A former professional basketball player, son of a
sharecropper, and leading advocate for sustainable farming, Allen spoke to a
packed crowd in the Bryan Center's Reynolds Theater Wednesday evening as the
keynote speaker capping a two-day
food studies symposium
at Duke and the University of North Carolina, Chapel

Allen is the founder of Growing Power, a community farm and
food center based in Milwaukee. He shared the tenets of his "good food
revolution," a response to nutrient-lacking fast food.

"Ninety-nine percent of the food that comes into
Milwaukee comes from over 1,500 miles away," Allen said. "By the time
it travels and gets into our bellies, it's 7 or 8 days old. [Growing Power]
gets food to customers the same day, or next day, so they're getting the full
impact of nutrition."

Allen, only the second farmer to receive a MacArthur Genius
grant, is working to solve the problem of how to feed more people with less
land. His work has caught the attention of the White House. Michelle Obama
called on his assistance for her "Let's Move" campaign.

Growing Power started in 1993 as a small non-profit run by
volunteers but has now grown to a 100 employees, 20 farms, 50 regional training
centers, 50 alpine goats and 40 streams of income. The farm and food center
functions sustainably and provides healthy produce to local families, who would
otherwise not have access to fresh food, by partnering with corporations,
hospitals, schools and other organizations.

Wal-Mart, for example, provides some of the rotten fruits
and vegetables for Growing Power's compost.

"It all starts with the soil," Allen repeated during
the talk, describing his multi-step process for "growing soil."

One unexpected but positive consequence of the project,
Allen said, is in addition to healthy food and jobs, the effort provides literacy
and education for elementary school students, reduced crime, therapy for
juvenile delinquents, happier people, and a stronger multicultural and
multigenerational community.

"I predict thousands of new jobs will be created around
food systems" in the coming years, Allen said, for people who research
renewable energy, architects, carpenters, and healthcare professionals. "Not
everybody is going to want to put plants in the ground." 

Solar panels and other forms of renewable energy power the
project. The center also explores new techniques such as vertical farming to
maximize space and using food waste to create methane. More than 1,000 farmers
are trained at the center each year. In addition, Allen travels throughout the
country and abroad to train farmers and exchange knowledge.

"Every city I go to they talk about these 2020 plans to
become green and sustainable. I don't see how any area can be green and
sustainable without a sustainable food system," Allen said. "Food
makes us happy. We have more energy. It brings people together. [Growing Power]
uses food that to bring people together who don't get along. ... We should do it in
D.C. I know they're not eating good food."

Allen never thought he'd return to farming as an adult but
found that he had information he learned from his sharecropping father that he
could share with younger generations.

"Farming will keep you humble. One bug might destroy
your whole crop," Allen told the aspiring farmers in the room. "You
might have degrees. Some people teaching you might not have degrees, but they
have a lot to teach you."

He urged them to replicate his
model of sustainable farming and to scale it up.

"This is about our very survival as a species,"
Allen said. "Good food is medicine. We have communities that are hurting.
Doesn't have to be perfect or pretty. But get started, because that's where it's