We have our pantheon of deities in the Food Movement–the people and organizations who have had the most impact on our culinary landscape. We have discernible cuisines in this country, certainly more so than a century ago, thanks to James Beard, Julia Child, and Alice Waters. Carlo Petrini and Slow Food have helped us understand that food and pleasure must be connected to awareness and responsibility. Eric Schlosser showed us the dangers of our “fast food nation” and Michael Pollan illuminated “the omnivore’s dilemma.”
All these and very many more have helped us to start remaking the food system writ large, and while there remains much to do, perhaps none in this Hall of Heroes has had more direct, hands-on, person-to-person impact on the food decisions of individual people than Will Allen. His new book, The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities, tells the story of how a sharecropper’s son–once a professional basketball player and the first African American to play the game for the University of Miami Hurricanes–found his way back to the land in Wisconsin. Once there, he shaped–and in a very real way–saved the lives of a generation of Milwaukee’s youth.
Before he could do that though, he first had to improve the land in the 2-acre plot he bought in a blighted section of Milwaukee’s north side. “At my farm market,” Allen tells us, “worms soon became the largest part of my workforce. To create food on damaged city land, I needed first to heal the soil.”
When his mother left their sharecropping land in South Carolina, there were 900,000 farms in the U.S. operated by African Americans. Now here he was, about to become one of the 18,000 that do so today. That 98 percent drop, he seems to have concluded, might be a part of the reason that the urban landscapes are so blighted, that wholesome food is so scarce in these food deserts, that one in two African American kids born after the year 2000 will develop type II diabetes, and that 40 percent of African Americans over 20 years old already have high blood pressure.
His farm market became a magnet–a community center–where Allen had designed a program for the area youth to find employment and training through repairing and maintaining his greenhouses. From that seed of an idea grew what they’ve come to call an “Idea Factory,” and the food and farm-related programs that blossomed include: acid-digestion, anaerobic digestion for food waste, bio-phyto remediation and soil health, aquaculture closed-loop systems, vermiculture, small and large scale composting, urban agriculture, permaculture, food distribution, marketing, value-added product development, youth education, community engagement, participatory leadership development, and project planning.
The secret to Allen’s success, and the success of his mission, is something he calls “A World Without Fences.” When people told him he needed to erect fences to protect the center’s garden, he said: “No, you don’t. You have to do the harder work of engaging the community. You’ve got to make sure the neighbors know that the garden is their own, not yours.” When neighborhood kids threw rocks at his greenhouses, he didn’t chase them off–he invited them in.
It’s this kind of thinking that garnered Will Allen a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship three years ago, and just perhaps, it’s this kind of thinking that will quite literally save the world. Imagine if it were to spread far and wide–if we were all to say to each other, “Look, I’ve planted a garden here, and you’re welcome to share in the bounty. Meanwhile, how can I help you with what you’re doing?”
Idealistic? Sure. But when Margaret Mead taught us that a few hardworking individuals can change the world, and that was really the only thing that ever had, she meant that lazy and pessimistic people never improve anything. Idealism does not mean doing the impossible, it means striving for better. With the planting of a single seed, Will Allen sent us all a message: Make things grow, teach what you know, learn what you don’t, and share everything.