American Heart: Wisconsin Man Starts 'Good Food' Revolution

One man's passion for urban farming has the White House taking note.

ByChris Bury and Jessica Hopper
May 18, 2010, 12:22 PM

May 18, 2010 — -- Will Allen is a towering figure in his Milwaukee, Wisconsin, field. Working as a farmer, missionary and coach, he preaches the gospel of good food grown in the heart of the city.

"Our new farmers will not come from rural America," Allen said.

As president of the nonprofit organization Growing Power, Allen promotes urban farming among diverse groups in the inner city.

Farming is in Allen's blood. Allen's parents worked as sharecroppers in South Carolina. Allen, 61, grew up on a small farm in Maryland. He played pro basketball in his 20s and then toiled in the corporate world. Then, 18 years ago, he spotted a tiny 5-acre farm, the last one left in Milwaukee.

"There was a sign, 'for sale,' for this place and something made me stop," Allen said.

Now, Allen and 40 farmhands grow 160 different crops in solar-powered greenhouses. They also raise fish and house a full barnyard of animals.

"We grow enough food to feed 10,000 people," Allen said.

The idea is to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to inner-city neighborhoods that the big grocery chains have abandoned. "Food deserts" is what Allen calls the parts of the inner city where food is so scarce.

"The only place they can access good food is right here [at the farm] because we grow it and we bring it in from other farms that are in our co-op," Allen said.

Allen and Growing Power pack up fresh, home-grown food and deliver it to where the need is greatest, such as the local Boys and Girls Club. A week's supply costs $16.

"It's fantastic," Amanda Levoe, program manager of the Boys and Girls Club, said. "It provides them with the groceries for the week that a lot of times they might otherwise not get."

To make ends meet, Allen also supplies some of the city's finest kitchens. Chef Jan Kelly of the Meritage restaurant spends up to $400 a week on spinach, sprouts and beans.

"It's like plucking it out of your yard," Kelly said. "It's just delicious."

Allen's passion for urban farming has people flocking to his farm to learn how it's done. Even the White House has noticed. Allen will soon be attending a state dinner there.

Mission Bigger Than a Greenhouse

"It is a revolution," Allen said. "I've kind of coined the phrase, 'a good food revolution.'"

Now, Allen grows wherever he can, from school yards to graveyards.

His next project is a greenhouse five stories high. His mission is even bigger: to plant the seed that cities are a fine place to farm.

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