Originally published in Urban Ag News Issue 1
Growing Power founder Will Allen is using urban agriculture to bring healthy fresh food to all economical groups in communities nationwide.
Growing power Inc. in Milwaukee, Wis., is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Founder and CEO will Allen never imagined that this non-pro t organization would have become a major voice for urban agriculture not only nationally, but also internationally.
“When I first started out I was already farming,” Allen said. “I bought the last piece of farmland in Milwaukee for selfish reasons. I needed a place to sell my farm produce and planned to use the land for a farmer’s market.”
Allen’s life took a different turn when he was asked to assist a youth group in starting an organic garden in order to sell produce at the farmer’s market. Since then Allen has been a spokesperson and advocate for urban agriculture.
“This work is really about social justice and food justice because everyone has the right to good food,” he said. “we have to come up with systems that make sure people have the opportunity to purchase good food in a dignified way. we can’t continue to allow three out of 10 kids in America to go to bed hungry every night. Food is the most important thing in our lives. You have to have
food in order to survive.”
Expanding sustainable farming
Growing power currently has 140 employees, operating 23 farms with over 25 acres of greenhouses and more than 200 acres of fresh food production. e organization helps to operate 15 regional training centers in 13 states that replicate the farming program that Allen started in Milwaukee.
There are eight farms in the Chicago area. Allen said the Chicago area has a lot of potential because of the amount of vacant land available. He said there are about 33 square miles of vacant land.
“We are adding farms all the time,” Allen said. “we are putting land in long-term tenure. we have hired an attorney and an expert in land trust work to
help with that. at is one of our big efforts now, to add more production space in cities and right outside cities. some of our farms are in nearby rural communities within a half hour of the city of Milwaukee.”
Allen said he expects the training centers will expand to about 20 states in 2013. “Organizations have to apply to operate a regional training center,” he said. “ There are criteria they have to meet and they have to go through a ve-month training program. They also have to have their own permanent use of land for at least ve years. e contract they sign with Growing power extends over a ve-year period and this helps to ensure they have time to develop the necessary infrastructure.”
Growing power operates greenhouses, including hydroponics and aquaponics, and does eld production. “These other locations try to replicate the integrated food system that we have created at Growing Power,” Allen said. “we are not only growing plants organically, but we are raising sh and other animals in different ways.”
Allen said the majority of the organizations that apply to set up regional training centers have been designated 501c3. He said there are also some for-pro t groups that participate.
“We have been doing hands-on training in Milwaukee since 2000,” he said. “we have met a lot of the people from these organizations and have formed partnerships with them. I make the final decision based on the organizations’ stability a er they have gone through the training program. Also, we don’t sign o on this program with an organization’s director or CEO. e entire board of directors of an organization has to support and be advocates for the program.”
Need for a diverse distribution system
As important as it is to be able to produce enough healthy, chemical-free food, Allen said it is also critical to be able to distribute that food.
“We have a diverse marketing scheme to distribute our healthy food to everybody in the community,” he said. “ is includes wholesale accounts, retail accounts, farm stands, grocery stores, caterers and even working with Sysco to buy produce in case lots for food school programs. we want to be able to get food to everybody in the community regardless of where they are economically. If you are going to have an equitable food system, you are going to have to address the issue of how are you going to get this healthy food to everyone in the community.”
The first thing that Growing power works on is distributing food to the local community through the organization’s retail outlets.
“We are in a food desert area so we operate retail stores and farm stands,” Allen said. “ ese have to be business models with cash ow. It may require a more diverse marketing scheme that includes wholesale, retail and a number of different income streams. It is very complicated when you are developing a new local food system and it takes time to develop. You have to let these different accounts know you have the capability to produce enough food to go into their systems. This is probably the biggest challenge with local food production. There are very few organizations around the country that can produce enough food on a regular basis to distribute into the streams that we have.”
Creating living wage jobs
The production centers set up by Growing Power are sta ed by local employees. Allen said the jobs created at these centers are living wage jobs, not minimum wage.
“Our commitment, regardless of how difficult it is, is to generate cash ow, so we have the ability to create living wage jobs,” he said. “Operating a development training program won’t work unless there is a job ready for the person being trained.
If we are training a person to build greenhouses, we need to make sure that at the end of their year of training they have a permanent job waiting for them. And they receive a 5 percent pay increase after that year.”
Allen said the size of the production centers determines how many employees work there.
“Different farms have different agricultural footprints,” he said. “ They can be different sizes. It could be 1⁄4 acre with three hoop houses. Another operation might be 5 acres with 30 hoop houses. It also depends on the crops. some crops have a higher value than others. For example, collards may not yield as much as spinach or salad greens. There’s also regrowth so you don’t have to reseed every time you harvest a crop.
“Organic farming is a very artisan type of farming and you have to know what you are doing. There is no protocol. You have to visually and spiritually know what you need to do every day.”
October 2016: Will Allen Speaks at White House’s SXSL Event and Celebrates Let’s Move! Campaign with the First Lady
At this year’s SXSW, President Obama was a Keynote Speaker. During his conversation he challenged creative thinkers and entrepreneurs from across the country to help tackle our toughest issues.
On Monday, October 3, inspired by SXSW, the White House put on its first-ever festival, celebrating that spirit of innovation with sessions, musical performances, the White House Student Film Festival, and a group of interactive booths featuring hands-on exhibits.
Hometown food justice hero Will Allen, CEO and Founder of Growing Power, was asked by President Obama to speak on the “Feeding the Future” panel among other prestigious individuals making change in America’s food industry. The panel showcased people leading the charge in making food more accessible, sustainable, and healthy. Allen presented the work he’s been doing through his nonprofit Growing Power along with some commonsense steps needed today to best prepare for the future of food in our communities.
A recording of yesterday’s panel can be found at https://www.whitehouse.gov/SXSL.
SXSL was a call to every American to discover their own way to make a positive difference in our country. It was also a celebration of the work so many Americans have already accomplished.
This will not be Will Allen’s only stop at the White House this week. First Lady Michelle Obama has asked him to join her in celebrating the impact of her Let’s Move! initiative, which has been dedicated to helping kids and families lead healthier lives. Allen has been a proponent of this campaign from the very start. He was one of four national spokesman that the First Lady asked to help her launch Let’s Move! back in 2010. Growing Power’s annual “Good Food Revolution 5K Walk/Run” has also been an extension of the work he’s been doing for this initiative.
Allen will be at the White House this Wednesday to celebrate the impact and progress that has been achieved in the last six years, as well as discuss the work that still needs to be done, through lasting policies, programs, and public-private partnerships. On Thursday, Allen and a number of children that currently participate in Let’s Move! programs will be helping Michelle Obama with the White House Garden’s final fall harvest. Will Allen announced “I will remain working with the First Lady beyond her stay at the White House and will continue the mission of Let’s Move! by bringing healthy food to people all over the nation”.
ABOUT GROWING POWER
Growing Power is a national nonprofit organization and land trust supporting people from diverse backgrounds, and the environments in which they live, by helping to provide equal access to healthy, high-quality, safe and affordable food for people in all communities. Growing Power implements this mission by providing hands-on training, on-the- ground demonstration, outreach and technical assistance through the development of Community Food Systems that help people grow, process, market and distribute food in a sustainable manner.