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Growing Power a local food empire

Marc Lefkowitz  |  07/24/09 @ 10:57am

Will Allen shared how he went from NBA player to urban farm entrepreneur with a serious social mission at the American Horticulture Society annual gathering being hosted by Cleveland Botanical Garden this week. Allen credits his competitiveness, his desire to help young people, and his father, a former sharecropper who moved to the city but still shared with Allen and his siblings his stories about growing good food.

Allen founded Growing Power, Inc. in 1993 purchasing the last farm in inner city Milwaukee, and has cultivated that into a national urban farming nonprofit which is supported by eight urban farms including the original farm now a three-acre for-profit operation with broad economic and social impact in Milwaukee. Growing Power, Inc.'s total operation is projected to earn $2 million in revenues this year.

That eight urban farms produce $2 million is a testament to Allen's innovation and his willingness to fold in ideas from many sources. He learned about maximizing space while playing basketball in The Netherlands where the Dutch mastered vertical container farming. He's a fearless tinkerer and has a devoted staff of 36 working on 40 projects mostly with inner city kids. He's taught them organic food production and how to build low-tech renewable energy systems such as a year-round nursery for 5,000 pounds of red wriggler worms-his "livestock" for composting tons of Milwaukee brewery spent grains, wood chips and coffee grounds which provide all of the heat inside the giant hoop houses where greens and veggies are grown in the winter.

In the summer, thousands of kids who live a few blocks away in Milwaukee's largest public housing project farm both the 3-acres in the city and a 30-acre farm outside the city. They work in a 30,000 sq. ft. warehouse where market bags are packed for a CSA and in a retail store which sells products like worm castings and compost tea. That's just the beginning of Growing Power's reach.

Allen gave a shout out to the Cleveland Botanical Garden's Green Corps. program, which is very similar to Growing Power's teaching gardens. (Allen toured and spoke to the 90 kids raising food at four Green Corps. learning gardens, and he promised to help them build a worm nursery).

Growing Power is one of those national memes-it has taken on a life of its own. If it can be replicated again and again in every major city of the United States the local food and urban agriculture movement will undoubtedly move to scale and achieve metrics like feeding Clevelanders from 10% local food.

And the local food movement in America's inner cities and rural areas is spreading, says Allen, who is on every national politician's radar. For his part, Allen has teamed up on a 20,000 sq ft. French-style edible 'potager' garden in Chicago's Grant Park, converted a derelict basketball court in Cabrini Green to an asphalt garden, is working with the Souix Lakota to meet their diabetes epidemic head on with more giant hoop houses, and establishing an urban farm in Mississippi.

"This new type of farming-small-scale, local, intensive-it is the future," Allen said. "Processed foods are killing us, and people of color are the most affected. We need to reach thousands of inner city kids. The myth is they don't care about good food. I can tell you, that's not the case. The problem is access."

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