Can worms help solve racism? Well, they may be part of the solution. Longtime sustainable agriculture guru Will Allen spoke at an event at Midtown Global Market on August 19 put on by the Women’s Environmental Institute (WEI) and explained how some of the sustainability processes that he has developed can make good, healthy food available to all communities, not just those that can afford it. The event was a kickoff to the Urban Farm Project at Little Earth, where kids and teachers will be creating a composting site.
Allen said that right now we are in a “good food revolution” where “nothing is off the table in terms of growing food.” In his slide show presentation, he showed how such as systems as aquaponics, where fish and plants are cultivated in a symbiotic growing facility, or vermiculture, where thousands of worms are used to help break down food waste, and their castings create rich, fertile compost fertilizer.
In 1993 Allen bought the last remaining farm in the city of Milwaukee: he was the third owner of that 19th century piece of property. Since then, he has led the charge in urban agriculture, both in Milwaukee and in other cities across the country. He is the chief executive officer of Growing Power, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization whose goal is “to grow food, to grow minds, and grow community.”
Check out FRESH, the documentary that stars Will Allen, at www.FRESHthemovie.com.
Growing Power “engages the power of community,” Allen said. It’s a grassroots effort, where neighbors become involved in the process. The organization engages the community by activities such as educational programs in schools and detention centers, where at-risk youth receive life skills such as using power tools and learning about the “lost art of canning,” as Allen refers to the process of preserving fruits and vegetables harvested from Growing Power’s urban gardens.
“You gotta make it fun for the kids,” Allen said. He grinned as he described how youngsters, at first afraid of the worms used in his composting systems, eventually delight in sticking their hands into the pile of worms.
He also said that in terms of engaging in underserved communities, it was important to “create an environment where people feel comfortable.” Working with many immigrant communities, he said his organization is conscious of having a place where people feel safe. “It takes a lot of patience,” Allen said. Ultimately, the communities he has worked with look at the work he’s doing as an asset.
As part of their business plan, Growing Power sells their organically created fertilizer, and food, but they also donate to food shelves, and allow those with food stamps to purchase what they grow. “We want to make sure everybody has access to healthy food,” he said.
As far as rules and regulations, “Don’t ask questions: that gets everybody in trouble.” That’s Allen’s advice to those who want to experiment with composting and sustainable agriculture in an urban area. When he started doing his urban agriculture work in Milwaukee, there was no ordinance saying you couldn’t compost within the city limits. He recommends doing it in such a way that neighbors don’t complain. Keeping the odor to a minimum and giving back to the community are ways to make urban agriculture possible without getting the city bureaucracy involved. “You don’t want to have to regulate,” Allen said, as licensures and red tape could make organic farming cost prohibitively expensive.
Allen said that the Good Food Revolution is starting to be possible now because “people are coming together… There’s all this energy coming together, sharing resources, making sure everyone has access to good food,” he said. Social justice and dismantling racism can happen, he said, because people are creating concrete projects together. Allen said: “We eat good food together, and all of a sudden people forget who they are. Color becomes a non-issue.”
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer. Email firstname.lastname@example.org