Finding the way to a more efficient food network: Farmer wants less food waste and more urban farming

By Brian Shlonsky

Will Allen wants to see the development of community food systems that produce healthy, organic and affordable food to urban areas.

More than 130 people gathered at the Lexington Public Library for an event hosted by The Gaines Center. Allen, founder and CEO of Growing Power, shared his knowledge and ideas concerning the formation of community food systems that make healthy food affordable to people worldwide.

“We need to change our food system,” Allen said. “There are more hungry people in the world than ever, but more people are eating non-nutritious foods.”Growing Power, which is a national non-profit organization, is an energy efficient, multicultural and multigenerational organization that grows more than 159 different varieties of crops year-round and turns six million pounds of food waste into fertilizer and methane gas in its National Training and Community Food Center in Milwaukee, Wis.

“It’s amazing how many fruits and vegetables there are that never make it to the grocery stores because they over order on frozen food,” Allen said. “Growing Power gathers 20,000 pound loads of this food waste a week, also using brewing waste from the many Milwaukee breweries for composting.”

Growing Power also holds training seminars directed at teaching adults and youth the skills of growing healthy, organic food, using inexpensive and environmentally friendly composting techniques.

Allen, who has more than 50 years of farming experience, also stressed the importance of community involvement in creating urban food systems.

“We need 50 million new people to grow food, whether it’s in their backyards or on this stage,” Allen said. “It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen because it’s a movement. A movement about mainstream America wanting to eat healthier and live in sustainable communities because it doesn’t make sense to ship food 1,500 miles away.”

Growing Power has also created youth organizations in urban neighborhoods in cities such as Chicago to teach kids to take measurements, use tools, garden and build replica greenhouses.

“Many of the teens from Chicago would be in gangs if not for the youth groups offered,” Allen said. “They getpaid and are able to take home vegetables to their families. It acts as an anti-crime organization because the youth love agriculture, and it gives them a chance to stay off the streets and have a summer job.”

Allen also said that many of the children could not read and write when they came to the organization, which now gives them two hours of academics a day during the summer.

Allen remains one of the only African-American farmers in Wisconsin, and has shared his message on the importance of sustainable community food systems around the world in Europe, Africa, and South America.

According to www.growingpower,com, Allen was honored by the Ford Foundation’s “Leadership for a Changing World Award” in 2005, and in 2008 was awarded $500,000 from MacArthur Fellows Program for his work promoting sustainable farming methods in low-income neighborhoods.

If students are interested in purchasing community grown vegetables, Michler Florist and Greenhouses sells plants, herbs, berries and seeds and is located at 417 East Maxwell St.

“We support kids that want to start a vegetable garden,” said Claudia Michler.