Growing Power Goes Global
Visitors from London learn from local urban farmers
by Lisa Kaiser
October 11, 2007
Growing Power focuses on providing local, sustainable food supplies in urban areas. But now its vision of community farming and “food justice” is being expanded around the globe. The North Side farm project, launched by Will Allen in Milwaukee with additional projects in Chicago, is attracting attention from areas as diverse as Macedonia, Tanzania, Ghana, South America and London.
Allen said that urban agriculture—whether it’s community gardens, small-scale farms or plots in parks—has the potential to ease food disparities in ever-more crowded cities, especially among low-income people and people of color.
“More than half of the world’s population is moving into cities,” Allen said. “We’ve got to learn how we’re going to feed these people.”
Allen said that building an infrastructure to grow food in urban areas and distribute it to “food desert” areas in the city—places in which people must travel more than one mile to get to a grocery store—is increasingly necessary. Residents of these areas often rely on fast-food restaurants or convenience stores, which tend to be chock-full of overpriced, processed food that contributes to diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
“We’re growing a lot of food [at Growing Power], but it’s a drop in the bucket,” Allen said. “Food is still being shipped 1,500 miles. Until we reach the point of turning some of the rhetoric into concrete action, and start to build an infrastructure, 10 years from now we’re still going to be talking about local food—just talking.”
Allen said that projects begun at the Maple Tree Elementary School, where Growing Power has signed a 20-year lease to grow food and help community gardeners, and its farming project in Grant Park in Chicago, are ways to use urban land creatively. Allen said Milwaukee County’s parks could use a few garden plots, too.
“You look at the county park system, where there is all of this vacant land that no one is using, and they have budgetary problems,” Allen said. “Why not allow people to farm on it?”
The London Exchange
Last May, Allen took his ideas to London, where he spoke at the U.S. Embassy; in front of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce; with urban farmers and their allies; and with The City Circle, a group of Muslim professionals.
Allen said he found common ground on his visit.
“We’re basically dealing with the same issues—racism, lack of healthy food, terrorism, poverty,” Allen said. “This is just another piece of the puzzle.”
This week, sustainable food experts from London will visit Growing Power’s farm on Silver Spring Drive, then tour the garden in Chicago’s Grant Park. The U.S. Embassy provided a grant that allows the British advocates to visit Milwaukee, Chicago and New York as they learn more about grassroots actions to tackle environmental issues and sustainable food production. Visitors include Colin Buttery, deputy chief executive of the Royal Parks of London, which encompasses 5,000 acres of historic parkland; Tony Leach, director of London Parks and Green Spaces Forum, which promotes green space within the city; Catherine Miller, of the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, which represents 59 city farms, almost 1,000 community gardens, 66 school farms and community-managed “allotments” in the United Kingdom.
Ben Reynolds, of London Food Link, which helps to build a network of sustainable food providers and outlets, will also make the trip. The group was involved in the London Food Strategy, a 10-year plan spearheaded by the city’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, to make London’s food system more sustainable.
Reynolds, echoing Allen’s analysis of local food in Milwaukee and elsewhere, said the local food infrastructure in London needs to be improved.
“There is demand for local food, and there is food being produced, but there have been a lot of problems around getting food into outlets,” Reynolds explained in an e-mail last week. “This is partly because suppliers still prefer cheaper foreign imports, and also because producers are still learning about the demands of buyers and suppliers, in terms of presentation and packaging of produce, but also reliability of delivery.”
Reynolds said that 8% of London’s area is farmland, and farmers’ markets are the best bet for finding locally produced food such as fruit and vegetables, meat, goat cheese, beer and honey.
He said a priority for his organization is increasing London’s ethnic minorities’ awareness of local food.
“We’re trying to move beyond the association of the term ‘sustainability’ with the white middle classes,” Reynolds said. “Often ‘sustainability’ includes issues that other cultural and faith groups care about, but it’s wrapped in a different language. But there are elements of education, access and affordability as well.”
Allen said that Growing Power’s efforts to make urban agriculture more attractive to Milwaukee’s minority communities are also a priority. But he said that old biases—that farming is “slave work”—and newer sources of discrimination—”Latino farmworkers haven’t necessarily been treated all that well in this country,” he noted—are barriers he’s trying to overcome.
“If you’re going to sustain any kind of urban agriculture, it is not going to be a top-down process,” Allen said. “We have to engage the community, which is going to take a really long time. The people who need the food, or have a hard time accessing it, are people of color. … We’ve got to work hard to get people involved.”