Last Thursday, founder and CEO of the national non-profit Growing Power, Inc., Will Allen spoke to a crowded auditorium at Bed-Stuy’s Boys & Girls High School.
Part of The Good Food Revolution, a three-day event coordinated by Brooklyn Rescue Mission, Mr. Allen’s presentation offered a window into the workings of Growing Power, Inc., an organization that aims to provide equal access to healthy, affordable and safe foods by developing sustainable community food systems.
Donning a University of Miami baseball cap (his alma mater), Mr. Allen, 62, told the story of how in 1993 he bought an old farm stand in Milwaukee’s impoverished north-side, quit his job at Procter & Gamble and founded Growing Power, Inc.
“There was never a plan,” said Mr. Allen. “It started by helping a youth group learn how to farm, and I just got sucked in.”
Funded through grants, food sales and corporate sponsorship, Growing Power’s Milwaukee headquarters has grown into an economically and environmentally sound food system that feeds 10,000 people per year.
The operation uses a variety of self-sustaining methods, including a large-scale compost system that turns food waste into fertilizer and methane gas into energy. Mr. Allen also uses two aquaponic hoop houses, a system that links the raising of fish with plant fertilization.
Despite these groundbreaking methods, a lot of Mr. Allen's success has come by sticking to old techniques.
“All the methods that we use are nothing new,” said Mr. Allen. “It was being done this way in ancient times. We are just adding our cultural twist.”
It is a twist that not only helps Growing Power, Inc. to achieve what Mr. Allen calls “intensive production” – growing the maximum amount of food in the minimum amount of space – but to link food with community development.
“There are few things that can bring people together like food,” Mr. Allen said. A philosophy that is perhaps best represented by the thousands of community volunteers that Growing Power, Inc. attracts each year.
For his work, Mr. Allen has received several honors including a 2008 John D. and Katherine T. McArthur Fellow and in 2010 Mr. Allen was named one of “Time Magazine’s 100 World’s Most Influential People.”
Like Mr. Allen, Brooklyn Rescue Mission’s co-founders Rev. Robert Jackson and Rev. DeVanie Jackson have been promoting sustainable food systems and healthy living since their organization was founded in 2002. In 2005, they developed the Bed-Stuy Farm, which grows and distributes fresh produce at Brooklyn Rescue Mission’s food pantry.
“Food justice is more than about promoting healthy living. It’s about building a healthy community,” said Rev. Robert Jackson. “Food blends cultures and class. The guy who rides a bike and the guy who drives a Mercedes can both say, ‘man that’s good food.’”
Still, Mr. Allen and Rev. Robert Jackson see the work of organizations like Growing Power, Inc. and Brookyn Rescue Mission as taking only small steps towards solving a larger problem.
“Society is very food insecure,” said Mr. Allen, towards the end of the presentation. “We are losing agriculture land, with an increasing population. Soon, we won’t be able to feed ourselves. There needs to be a change.”