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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Will Allen on the urban farm revolution

Cassandra West

CHICAGO — Even if you know only a little about urban agriculture, you’ve probably heard of Will Allen, the nation’s foremost local food movement leader and advocate. Allen, who founded the Milwaukee-based urban farm and education center Growing Power Inc., was in Chicago at Fourth Presbyterian Church Thursday (June 24) evening to talk about his good food movement, which is “really about social justice,” he says.


Allen's presentation, titled “The Urban Farm Revolution: Growing Power and the Importance of Sustainable Local Food Production,” was an overview of Growing Power’s work since 1995 as a not-for-profit training center that focuses on urban agriculture methods and building community food security systems. He also talked about his organization’s work in Chicago, specifically a community outreach project and collaboration with Fourth Church called Chicago Lights Urban Farm.

Growing Power helped establish the urban farm (444 W. Chicago Ave.), which this year expanded to become an urban farm with year-round food production. The farm provides access to affordable organic produce and nutrition education and promotes economic development.

“All should have access to safe, affordable, nutritious food at all times,” Allen said before presenting a slideshow on Growing Power’s numerous projects in Milwaukee and around the world. He said his mission and vision are to bring people together, and “one of the best ways to bring people together is around food…that’s when wonderful things happen.”

Allen is an innovator in composting, vermicomposting (using worms to refine and fertilize compost) and aquaponics (growing fish and food plants in a closed system). Perhaps his strongest message Thursday was the importance of rethinking how and where food is grown. Straight-faced and serious, he declared that food can grow on asphalt. Several of his slides showed images of vegetable-laden soil mounds that Growing Power has installed on top of hard-surface urban lots.

Of the food we consume, 99 percent of it is “shipped in,” Allen said. “If we had local food production, we’d create a lot of jobs.” That’s really the social justice component of what Allen calls the good food movement.

Donnell Williams

Community organizer Donnell Williams, who came out to meet and hear Allen, told Seeding Chicago he wants to change how residents in his Roseland neighborhood access healthy food. He and others are starting a farmers market along with a local church. But his chief concern is to end food deserts and seek ways to bring in food-related jobs that can help "sustain the community," he said.