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In 1993, when Will Allen bought the three-acre plot of land in Milwaukee that would later become Growing Power, he didn’t know that he would be starting a food movement. In fact, his intentions were more for-profit than nonprofit. At the time, he was a successful salesman at Proctor & Gamble and was also operating a 100-acre farm in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, selling his produce to grocery stores and farmers markets.
The son of a sharecropper, Allen was itching to farm full-time and saw the new plot as a likely business opportunity. “There were no grocery stores in the area at that time, and as a business person, I thought, ‘Location, location, location,’” recalls Allen. The plot, the last remaining farm and greenhouse in the city, was located in a “food desert” half a mile from a large housing project. He spent the first year fixing up the greenhouse and sold his goods out of one of the greenhouses on the plot.
Allen soon received a call from Milwaukee’s Hunger Task Force, however, which changed his market-focused mindset and led to his founding of Growing Power. The director asked Allen for help teaching kids how to start an organic garden for the YWCA. After an article about the kids growing food under Allen’s guidance was published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the calls from non-profits started coming in. Along with a connection to the land and the yearning to farm, the desire to work with kids solidified his mission.
“It was part of my proposal to the city that I would to teach kids about how to grow food and about food systems—that was my other purpose,” says Allen. “Because when you educate kids, they take that back to their homes and tell their parents.” In effect, Allen had sown the seeds for altering the existing food system, especially in inner cities, and established a way to push for food and social justice. “Everyone, regardless of economic status, should be able to access healthy, nutritious foods,” says Allen.
In its nineteenth year, Growing Power continues to thrive in its mission. Its three-acre Community Food Center in downtown Milwaukee houses an integrated food growing system that includes 150 different types of crops as well as an aquaponics system, which pumps dirty water from the Center’s fish tanks to beds of watercress, which in turn filter the water for the fish. The center also contains an apiary with beehives, as well as other livestock, such as chickens, turkeys, ducks, and goats.
All told, the foods produced by Growing Power feed about 10,000 people in Milwaukee. The organization is also in the middle of putting 100 acres of greenhouses in and around southeast Wisconsin, Madison, and Chicago, to add to the existing 23-farm, 200-acre food production sites. Allen’s business-savvy also is paying off: “We’re different than other nonprofits—over 50 percent of our profits come from selling our goods and services, we have over 40 different income streams, and we are not just dependent on grants. Not many nonprofits can say that,” Allen says.
Growing Power may have done a lot to change the dynamics of local food in Milwaukee and neighboring areas, but for Allen it’s not enough. “We want to increase the amount of local food consumed in Milwaukee from one percent to 10 percent or more,” says Allen. The ultimate goal, in addition to showing that fresh fruits, vegetables and other foods can be produced in an urban setting, is creating an infrastructure that can be replicated. A three-year research project involving different types of agriculture systems, and the building of the five-story Growing Power Vertical Farm in Milwaukee will serve as helpful models.
“In the future, certain cities like New York, San Francisco, Vancouver that do not have a lot of horizontal land mass will have to learn how to grow food to sustain its people,” says Allen. “Our goal is to build the first vertical farm so that we can study and quantify how we can produce food, so that others can do it on a larger scale.”