‘Good food’ crusader fires up Great Lakes advocates

Attendees at the 9th Annual Great Lakes Restoration Conference in Milwaukee were treated to one of the most inspiring speeches in the event’s history.

Will Allen, the founder and CEO of a Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization called Growing Power, gave a rousing speech about his crusade to develop community food systems that provide healthy, high-quality and affordable food for all.

Allen is a national leader in urban farming and his organization has taught tens of thousands of people in communities around the world how to growth their own food.  Allen wants to eliminate so-called “food deserts” — urban areas that have no grocery stores, where residents get much of their food from party stores and fast food restaurants.

“We don’t have a just food system in this country, so we need to make sure everyone has access to the same food,” Allen told about 400 people at the conference. “The good food movement is a revolution.”

Clad in a golf shirt and baseball cap bearing the logo of his alma mater, the University of Miami, Allen didn’t discuss the myriad environmental threats facing the Great Lakes or what could or should be done to heal the lakes. Rather, he served up a heavy dose of motivation for conservation leaders, government officials and volunteers working restore a massive ecosystem that humans have abused for more than a century.

Will Allen, right, talks with Andy Buchsbaum, co-chair of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

Will Allen, right, talks with Andy Buchsbaum, co-chair of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

The former professional basketball player and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient started Growing Power in 1993. Allen began by turning food waste and worm casings into fertile topsoil, which he then used to start small farms in gang-infested neighborhoods, on abandoned urban properties and empty parking lots, at schools, businesses, fire stations and, in one case, at a cemetery.

“We’re finding the most unlikely places to grow food,” Allen said. “The type of farming we do is a very artistic.”

Since its formation,  Allen’s organization has created 140 jobs, taught children and adults in several countries how to grow healthy food, and connected people with the land. Growing Power now produces more than one million pounds of topsoil annually, as well as hundreds of thousands of pounds of assorted vegetables, lake perch and tilapia.

“Kids are learning where their food comes from,” Allen said. “It doesn’t come from McDonald’s or the grocery store — it comes from Mother Earth.”

Growing healthy food in a sustainable manner requires less energy and water, and causes less soil and water pollution, Allen said. Perhaps most importantly, community food systems empower people and provide hope for individuals and communities in crisis.

That’s precisely what Allen’s speech did for many conservation leaders at the Great Lakes Restoration Conference: He empowered people striving to restore an ecosystem that’s in crisis.

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