By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
KEYSTONE – Will Allen remembers when fellow African Americans disparaged his efforts at urban farming as “slaves’ work.”
Now, as obesity rates skyrocket, especially among people of color, Allen and other nutrition revolutionaries view access to fresh, healthy food as a new civil rights and social justice frontier.
With First Lady Michelle Obama creating her much-publicized White House garden, homegrown vegetables have become cool again. Allen, a national leader of the urban farming movement, believes growing healthy food is much more than a fad. He sees it as a critical path to improving health among all Americans by giving them access to nutritious foods.
“People of color have gotten away from growing their own food because of the connotation that this is the kind of work that slaves used to do,” Allen said. “We’ve seen the results of several generations of people eating bad food.”
The latest obesity statistics show that nearly 75 percent of blacks in the U.S. are either overweight or obese. Whites and Hispanics are not faring much better with nearly 63 percent of whites and 69 percent of Hispanics tipping the scales as either overweight or obese. Along with racial and ethnic links to obesity, the recent F is for Fat Report found a strong correlation between obesity and poverty. The high cost of healthy foods and poor access to fresh fruits and vegetables among the poor have triggered unprecedented spikes in obesity rates, a trend Allen says is unacceptable.
A former professional basketball star and corporate salesman, Allen stumbled across a farm for sale in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1993. The land sat blocks from a massive public housing project. Allen bought the farm and began teaching urban kids how to grow and eat healthy food.
His vision helped trigger the creation of Growing Power Inc., Allen’s farm and community food center in Milwaukee. The center trains people from all economic and racial backgrounds on how to produce their own fresh, safe, affordable and nutritious foods even in cities and climates with harsh winters. Among the newest techniques Allen is espousing are vertical, multi-story gardens and inexpensive, durable “hoophouse” greenhouses, which can be home to year-round aquaponic gardens, where crops and fish can grow together.
Allen won the prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant in 2008 and last year, Time magazine picked him as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.
To rediscover his skills as a farmer, Allen had to embrace his family’s roots. Allen’s father was a sharecropper who grew cotton and corn in South Carolina.
“He dropped his plow and mule and moved north,” Allen said.
The family lived in Washington, D.C., where Allen’s father worked as a construction laborer and ran a small farm that produced about 85 percent of the family’s food. Allen’s father taught his sons how to work the land, but Allen left farming after receiving multiple college basketball scholarship offers and going on to the pros.
“When I left the farm, I said, ‘never again’ because it’s hard work.”
Years later, he felt something was missing in his life and discovered the joy in getting his hands dirty again and sharing that passion with young inner-city kids.
Allen began to see striking changes. Back in 1996, a group of kids would come to the farm three days a week. Some of them lived in the nearby projects and ironically passed a McDonalds as they walked to the farm. Allen fixed the students hot breakfasts with fresh, healthy ingredients. He’d stir fry Swiss chard, kale and spinach and mix it with eggs. Sometimes there would be organic milk and fresh bacon.
“After about three weeks, these young people were eating this really good food and started not to want to go to McDonalds. I would fix breakfast and they would work on the farm,” he said.
After six months, the kids were hooked. Allen had to go out of town for a conference and a substitute teacher tried to feed them cereal and breakfast junk foods.
“They were angry and said, ‘where’s Will?’ It takes a while, but you can make a transformation,” Allen said. “It’s not like kids don’t know what good food is. You can’t blame the kids (for not eating healthy) when you’re trapped in the winter with a heavy snow and the only food you have is cans from that corner store down the street.”
Allen has fought hard against food deserts, like Detroit, where he says there is not a single chain grocery store in the entire city. Allen advocates for turning abandoned properties in cities like Detroit and Denver into productive urban farms. He decries supermarket chains for racism that has left poor city dwellers with few food choices.
“We have to look at this very realistically and not blame the kids. When grocery stores pull out, that’s a form of discrimination, especially when studies have shown that they would make money,” Allen said.
“There’s redlining going on with grocery stores, just the same as with banks.”
Today, Allen is proud that young people – some of whom he mentored at the farm and many of whom are black – are helping lead a food revolution.
Seeing an African-American woman, like Michelle Obama, or a black man, like Allen, espousing healthy homegrown foods has changed the dynamic.
“These kids don’t feel like what they’re doing is bad work or slaves’ work. They look at it as work. They want to get paid. They’re part of a team. And it’s healthy.”
Allen’s father died when Allen was just 22. But, he knows his dad would be impressed that a sharecropper’s son is earning kudos from world leaders for once again getting his hands dirty.
“He would have been very proud.”