As a collegiate and professional basketball player, Will Allen always wanted to guard the best player and take the potential game-winning shot. Today Allen’s desire to challenge himself has shifted to a different goal: helping the world build sustainable food systems in the face of staggering population growth.
Allen, who was the first African-American student-athlete to play basketball for the University of Miami, started and now leads Growing Power, an urban agricultural organization based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that produces affordable and healthy food for what he calls “food swamps,” urban regions where the only access to food is a local corner store or fast food restaurant.
On March 28, Allen shared with an audience at the University of Miami’s BankUnited Center Fieldhouse his strategies on how to transform the production and delivery of healthy foods to underserved communities, advocating for more locally grown food products, and farming techniques that turn waste into soil and fertilizer.
Food, said Allen, “is the most important thing in our lives. It’s something we all have in common because we have to eat to survive.” But not all food is good, he continued, noting that only 2 percent of the food we consume is organic.
Allen, author of The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities, appeared on campus as part of the Office of Civic and Community Engagement’s Urban and Environmental Sustainability Initiative.
With three out of ten people already going to bed hungry, rising population numbers will put even more of a strain on global food resources, Allen said. Growing food in our backyards, he explained, would not only help alleviate hunger, but change our carbon footprint.
Speaking in concert with a PowerPoint presentation, the 6-foot, 7-inch Allen retraced the history of his Growing Power organization, recounting its early days when his workers grew flowers and planted them in vacant lots to help beautify certain parts of Milwaukee.
“We started composting because our soil was contaminated with arsenic and lead,” he said, referring to the process of recycling waste into soil.
Today, Growing Power has 140 employees and 23 greenhouses. It engages young people in the Milwaukee community, teaching them how to preserve food and use gardening tools, and then strengthening their writing skills by having them write about what they’ve learned.
Allen, the recipient of a $500,000 “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, said he remains optimistic that problems with our existing food systems will be solved. “The hope I have is sitting in this room,” he said. “This next generation will make the change.”
In addition to the Office of Civic and Community Engagement, the Office of the President, the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy, and the Miami-Dade County Office of Sustainability co-sponsored Allen’s lecture.