Growing Power — Better Food to More People

I will occasionally publish articles by others that illustrate central ideas in my  book. In this essay, Michelle Lin, a former student in my course on “Solving Society’s Problems through Innovation and Enterprise,” writes about Growing Power, a revolutionary nonprofit urban farm.
The essay illustrate how Growing Power embraces Big Picture Design by ensuring that it considers all aspects of its operations, not just farming.  It exhibits an ability to Make It Appropriate by recognizing, and even taking advantage of, its urban location.  It helps Make It Stick by familiarizing local citizens and others with its activities and involving them when it is possible.  Finally, Growing Power is Making it Bigger through partnerships, education campaigns, and even technology it has developed, all of which can help others around the country and the world participate in the “Good Food Revolution.”
Towering at 6’7” and resembling a retired linebacker, Will Allen is the last person you would expect to be an urban farmer.  After a brief stintas a professional basketball player, followed by a successful career as a salesperson for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Procter & Gamble, Allen returned to his family roots, farming on a full-time basis. What began as a desire to reconnect with a childhood surrounded by food and farming is today driven by Allen’s motivation to provide equitable access to healthy food.

Allen started Growing Power in 1993 on a two-acre plot of land situated less than one-half mile from a public-housing project. Today, Growing Power produces at $200,000 per acre and feeds 10,000 people each year[1]. It is the only zoned farmland in Milwaukee and arguably the nation’s leading urban agricultural project. In a space smaller than the average supermarket, it boasts 20,000 plants and vegetables, thousands of tilapia and perch, a thriving livestock of chickens, goats, ducks, turkeys, and rabbits, an apiary, and thousands of red wiggler worms.            

Allen’s path to creating Growing Power was almost accidental—or directed by a higher power depending on your perspective. While still at P&G and living about 20 minutes outside Milwaukee, Allen was developing plans to sell produce throughout the city. He happened upon a greenhouse that had been repossessed by the city. Competing against a religious group intending to build a mega-church, Allen wrote a proposal to keep the greenhouse in use and added in a youth education component. The alderman reviewing the proposal was a former priest and felt Allen’s proposal was “religion in itself”[2]. However, it was a youth group that approached Allen for help with gardening and selling produce that truly inspired what Growing Power is today.
 Big Picture Design
While Growing Power’s urban farm is impressive on its own merits, its mission to provide equal access to affordable, safe, and healthy food is fueled by big, difficult, institutional challenges that range from lack of availability to unaffordable healthy foods.  The public housing by Growing Power, the largest in the state, is more than three miles away from the nearest grocery store chain, an inconvenience for anyone without car. McDonald’s and Popeye’s are both a 5-minute walk away. This is all too common a problem in inner cities.  In Detroit, as another example, there is not one single national grocery chain, although the city’s area is larger than Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston combined.
On a national scale, this translates into “food deserts” in lower-income areas, where healthy food is almost non-existent and if it is available, is likely too expensive to have on a regular basis. This perpetuates poor eating habits in lower-income populations, limited exposure to non-processed foods, long-term health problems, and lack of understanding of nutrition and how to prepare nutrient-rich meals.
What makes Growing Power’s approach powerful is that it is not just an urban farm. Rather, it has a big picture goal of impacting a “social, ecological and economic bottom line”[3] which is achieved by an ecosystem of programming that includes sustainable growing practices, education, training, community outreach, and advocacy. Furthermore, Allen is not just focused on Milwaukee, but is also demonstrating that Growing Power’s approach can be adopted anywhere, in cities across the US and even abroad.
Making it Appropriate
As we know from shopping at places like Whole Foods, Sparrow Market, and the weekly Ann Arbor farmer’s market, there is a price premium to buying local, organic food and produce. To achieve Growing Power’s commitment to creating local food systems and equitable access to healthy food, Allen has experimented and innovated to develop low-cost, closed-loop growing techniques.
At Growing Power, plants are densely packed and vertically grown, bringing in $5 to $30 per square foot. Farming at this level of intensity requires rich nutrients, which is enabled by thousands of highly productive worms that create 10 million pounds of castings (worm poop). This waste product is also diverted from landfills. Since compost generates a lot of heat, Growing Power has identified ways to leverage this heat source. Compost heaps, which reach temperatures of 150 degrees Celsius, sit within the greenhouses to keep them warm. Plant beds also sit on top of compost heaps. These methods allow Growing Power to reduce their costs, grow year-round, and increase their revenue streams.
 Allen’s greatest innovation is the aquaponics system he developed, a symbiotic process for growing fish and plants.  The waste in fish tanks is filtered by natural means and converted into plant nutrients as the water in the tanks is routed to the plant bedswhere crops grow, and ultimately returned to the fish tanks to complete a circuit. Allen’s system cost a mere $5,000 to build, compared to a $100,000 commercial system.
Much like his approach to experimenting with growing techniques, Allen pays close attention to needs of those he is working with and adapts Growing Power’s programs to meet those needs. When Allen first started working with kids, he noticed they had trouble reading and writing, so he instituted a reading and writing program closely tied to the work they did at Growing Power. To combat drug dealers who hung out in empty lots, Allen worked with kids to create “flower explosions”, drawing unwanted attention that discouraged drug dealers away from the lots. These kids not only got paid and learned about healthy foods, but also gained valuable life skills.[4]
Making it Stick
A primary goal of Growing Power is to educate others on sustainable growing practices that can then be brought back to individual communities and contribute to the creation of localized food systems. Without demonstrations and education, Growing Power’s effectiveness would stop at its own borders. Therefore, the farm works with youth and adults alike to spread the knowledge that it has evolved for the past 15 years.
Every day, Growing Power offers 1:30 hour tours, whose admission price of $10 is funneled back into the farm. The true impact of the tours is for visitors to see the farm and all its various components in action and become inspired by achievable possibilities for themselves and their communities.
After school and job training programs, as well as paid internships, are available to kids and students. Allen often works alongside youth, acting as a role model and further instilling a strong work ethic. Kids can take what they are learning with their hands into the classroom and vice versa, making connections between what they study in class and what they experience on the farm. The knowledge and skills gained as a youth are carried throughout adulthood, into a future in which Allen believes urban agricultural skills will become increasingly important.
For adults, Growing Power provides workshops and conducts outreach programs with other organizations to create their own localized food systems. Growing Power also participates in events across the US, including a recent two-day workshop in Detroit on building hoophouses that included a lecture by Allen.
Outside of educational programs, the farm’s onsite retail store is a powerful expression of what local agriculture is capable of. While retail supermarkets often stay away from poor neighborhoods, Growing Power’s retail shop is often packed to the brim on Saturdays, demonstrating that demand for healthy food exists regardless of socioeconomic standing.
At its core, all of Growing Power’s programming and outreach efforts are community- and relationship-building activities. To truly embed healthy foods into daily life and practice, Growing Power is breaking down the barriers that limit healthy food to just those who can afford it and pioneering urban farming practices. Urban farming happens in public places and feeds an entire community, whether it is a school, workplace, neighborhood, or city. As a shared resource that is visible and accessible to all, an urban farm creates pride and a sense of communal ownership that ultimately contributes to “making it stick.”
Making it Bigger
Growing Power’s mission to localize food systems drives it to purposefully develop simple, cost-efficient, and effective methods that are accessible to all. Though Growing Power was borne through supporting neighborhood youth, it has since expanded to include adults, churches, companies, cities, governments, foundations, and even Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. Beyond Growing Power’s original site, it is working on over 100 acres of land throughout the greater Milwaukee and Chicago areas and has partnered with numerous organizations on outreach projects.
Allen’s innovative techniques have led to notable awards and recognitions, including the MacArthur Fellowship and Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. In 2009, Allen became a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, through which he is raising $2M to strengthen food security in South Africa and Zimbabwe. All of this gives Allen the platform to advance the methods he has pioneered on a much grander scale and allow Growing Power to immensely scale up its impact.
The greatest compliment to Allen’s work is when others steal shamelessly from Growing Power. Sweet Water Organics, an urban aquaponics company launched in 2008, is the first commercial extension of Allen’s home-made aquaponics system. Sweet Water started with a $50,000 investment and in less than two years has garnered $1M in funding. It is currently discussing a whopping $30M concept for Sweetwater villages which would be supported by commercial-scale aquaponics.[5] Who would have imagined that a home-made $5,000 system could turn into multi-million dollar commercial projects?
Allen himself is still experimenting and pushing urban agriculture to new applications. Growing Power is proposing to build a carbon neutral, solar-powered 5-story vertical farm. In line with Growing Power’s focus on community-building and educational activities, the facility is complete with classrooms, a demonstration kitchen, meeting spaces, and a retail shop. This $8-$10M vertical farm is currently under review by the Milwaukee’s zoning and development commission and may be the first facility to test the capabilities and viability of vertical farming.[6] The success of this project would re-imagine how food is produced and transform the agricultural industry in the US and beyond.
Even with all that Growing Power tackles through its programming, Allen believes that all the important stakeholders involved in making good food accessible to everyone are never at the same table. September 2010 marked the first Growing Power Conference, which brought together 1,500 attendees and over 100 speakers to help eliminate fragmentation amongst the proponents of localized, equitable, and accessible food.[7]
The embodiment of a multi-disciplinary approach, the conference’s participants included farmers, government officials, academics, doctors, nutritionists, people in fitness and renewable energy, environmental specialists, recyclers, and youth to name a small sample.[8] Why does this diversity matter? In order to build a new food system, the input of all those involved is critical to designing a successful system that is capable of providing equitable access to healthy food. The conference provides a means to forge connections, inspire new ideas, and create momentum around building sustainable communities.
Through all of its initiatives, Growing Power is not simply making itself and its own reach bigger, but is enabling others to participate in what Allen calls the “good food revolution” and make the future of localized, equitable, and healthy food systems a reality. Growing Power is not out to do it alone, but rather wants its methods to be improved upon and scaled up, shamelessly copied, and successfully deployed all over the world.


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