Will Allen's Good Food Revolution 

click to enlarge Will Allen (right) visits Peaceful Grounds' Southport location in 2012. - MARK A. LEE
  • Will Allen (right) visits Peaceful Grounds' Southport location in 2012.
  • Mark A. Lee

Growing food, growing soil, growing farmers. That's the work of Growing Power, Inc., a Milwaukee-based national nonprofit founded by former professional basketball player Will Allen.

Allen was in Indianapolis this weekend for the ribbon-cutting of Peaceful Grounds Farm and Arts Market, started by his student, Linda Proffitt of Global Peace Initiatives.

For over 20 years, Allen has worked to relocalize urban food production, advocating raising fish and produce together to create jobs and healthy food in underserved communities. "It's gone from movement to revolution now," he said from Peaceful Grounds' new home at the Marion County Fairgrounds. "Everybody's talking about it. Everybody seems to want to be part of it."

However, most food purchases are still made at big box stores, while obesity rates continue to climb. The public health crisis disproportionately strikes communities of color.

Allen wants to reverse both trends. This sharecropper's son is a voice for inclusiveness that's often lacking in the local food movement, and he intends to show how nutritious food can be affordable to everyone. "I've had success because I'm working with people of color, and I look like them, so they feel more comfortable getting involved."

The Good Food Revolution, as he calls it, addresses more than food access. It's about reducing crime and improving health, while increasing the number of jobs in urban communities.

Organizations such as Peaceful Grounds are part of that revolution, helping to educate and enlighten. Kids (and adults) can get their hands in the dirt at Farm Camp, opening July 7 in four weeklong sessions. And volunteers are welcome to learn in an informal workshop environment at the demonstration farm and sustainable education center all year long, Proffitt says.

But Allen is clear that the revolution's future depends not on nonprofit organizations like Growing Places and Peaceful Grounds, but on for-profit enterprises.

"My intention was never to be the largest urban farm in the world," he said. "My intention was to train people to do urban farming." He started the initiative to counter naysayers who said it was impossible to grow enough food to change a community's dynamic. "I wanted to prove this could be done so others could do it on an entrepreneurial basis."

click to enlarge Linda Proffitt at work in Peaceful Grounds' Southport facility in 2012. - MARK A. LEE
  • Linda Proffitt at work in Peaceful Grounds' Southport facility in 2012.
  • Mark A. Lee

Allen says such programs are critical for inspiring new ag enterprises, which represent the movement's future. "But it's going to take a while because you can't grow a farmer overnight." Farming is tough business, and it may take 10 years before novices find their footing.

To make eco-agribusiness a sustainable enterprise, efficiency needs to be king. Allen hires professionals to work the land, keeping Growing Places' training program separate. The crew works swiftly, earning a living wage to grow produce that can be sold at affordable prices.

Reducing production costs through renewable energy use further improves the bottom line. As does Allen's method of worm composting to build topnotch soil for maximum productivity.

As eco-ag businesses adopt such principles — growing in hoop houses to deal with increasingly erratic weather, for example — they will have more consistent results. Then the break-even point in the "hardest industry in the world" will come sooner, Allen believes.

Though USDA grants and other awards support Growing Power's community work, the organization's newest venture is in the for-profit realm. In partnership with UW-Milwaukee's Great Lakes Water Institute and Freshwater Sciences, Allen's team will breed lake perch fingerlings for cottage industries. Lake perch is a favored "crop" because it can bring $20 per pound on the market.

"We're building the largest fish farm in America," he says. But instead of the mechanical system typically used for breeding fish, he's developing a natural system that replicates a clean river. The system uses only solar and compost as heat sources, thus cutting maintenance costs.

Innovations like these are what inspire Proffitt and others to call Allen "the grandfather of urban farming."

At 65, the winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and other accolades — both for his athletic prowess and for his second career — says he has no desire to hit the rocking chair. "Farmers never retire," he says.

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