By Lynette Holloway (www.NewsOne.com)
In 1920, African-Americans operated more than 900,000 farms across the nation. Today, there are only about 18,000 Black farmers. One person who hopes to change that number is Will Allen, who is the co-author of the newly released book, “The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities”
A farmer himself, Allen says tilling the land to grow healthy foods is one way to combat the obesity problem among African Americans, and he hopes to inspire more people to trade in their designer garb and corner offices for overalls and a plot of land to grow fresh produce in urban areas. He made the move nearly two decades ago.
In 1993, he cashed out a small retirement package from his sales position at Procter & Gamble and purchased a plot of land filled with dilapidated greenhouses not too far from Milwaukee’s largest public housing project. Since then, he has developed one of the nation’s preeminent urban farms on a little less than two acres of lands.
Allen, a former professional basketball player and executive at KFC, talks to NewsOne about his goal to transform more local food systems in underserved communities. He’s already made great strides at home; people no longer ask him why he’s doing “slave work” because he’s a farmer.
Will Allen: This is a grassroots revolution that is changing the way we grow and distribute food. It is creating a new agricultural system that builds community rather than destroys it. It is connecting small farmers directly to consumers, and preserving their livelihoods. It is bringing fresh food into urban communities like the one where I work in inner-city Milwaukee. It believes in the idea that everyone should have access to healthy, affordable food.
This revolution began simply as a movement, with a handful of organic farmers who decided decades ago to reject the industrial model of agriculture. I call it a “revolution” now because we have reached a critical mass. More and more people are becoming involved in growing their own food, buying from farmers markets and rising up against the industrial methods of agriculture. This includes Black people and White people, rich and poor, young and old. We all realize that our industrial food system has made us sick.
NO: Real talk. Today’s role models do not get their hands dirty. Can you see “Basketball Wives” star Jennifer Williams with a shovel? Blacks fought for years to escape farming and agriculture. Why are you encouraging young people to consider it as a profession again?
WA: I think it’s important to recognize that many young Black people want nothing to do with farming because it carries the stigma of sharecropping and slavery. Our parents and grandparents fought to leave farming. I speak in my new book about my own family’s journey out of the South during the Great Migration—and how they fought to leave agriculture. As a young man, I also struggled to leave farming. I put all of my faith in a professional basketball career.
What we’re trying to demonstrate in Milwaukee, however, is a new kind of small-scale, intensive agriculture that is entrepreneurial and driven by social justice and that rebrands farming for young people. I think we’re being successful. People in my community used to ask me, “Why do you want to do that slave’s work?” I don’t hear that anymore. People understand that our health is at risk. Our ancestors in the 19th century had no ownership over the land they cultivated. Black farmers in the 20th century often were stuck in various forms of wage slavery.
I’m trying to re-imagine an agricultural system for the 21st century.
And if people consider growing food to be hard, I think it is far tougher to live later in life with Type II diabetes or other chronic illnesses caused by poor food and lack of activity.
NO: Do you think that food deserts in some predominantly African-American communities have caused part of the obesity problem? How can it be combated?
WA: I don’t think it’s the whole problem, but it’s part of the problem. Many of our communities have a lot of the wrong kinds of food—I like to call these “fast food swamps” rather than “food deserts.” The problem isn’t necessarily access to any food, but rather that it is very easy to access really unhealthy foods — fried chicken, candy, soda — while it’s really hard to access fresh food that’s reasonably priced or that tastes half-way decent.
Healthy or unhealthy trends tend to spread in social networks. Many inner-city kids are growing up in a family environment where they never have a chance to eat tasty fresh food. They never see any of their friends eating it. They don’t have role models for a healthy lifestyle. I don’t think simply putting up a farm stand in an inner-city community is going to solve everything.
But our urban farm in Milwaukee is allowing inner-city kids to be exposed to fresh food for the first time. These kids are able to taste sprouts that have come right from the ground and to learn in a hands-on way about worms and horticulture. I think the more exposures that we can create like that — and the more we can create positive emotions around those experiences — the more opportunity we have to change kids’ eating habits later in life.
NO: How do you envision a new food system?
WA: In the last chapter of my book, I imagine driving in Milwaukee a hundred years from now. I see hospitals that grow their own food in greenhouses and that feed these fresh vegetables to patients the same day they are picked. In inner-city neighborhoods, I see warehouses, rooftops, and green spaces where young entrepreneurs are growing food intensively and feeding the communities where they live. I see young Black men and women who are trained as “agriculturalists” and who are proud of the profession. I see urban waste companies that are in the business of composting, taking discarded food and wood chips and turning it into healthy soil. I see farms on the edge of cities that are growing several crops and serving the communities where they live.
We have a long way to go, but this is the future of agriculture. It is a model that will bring people together. It is farming with a human heart.