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Will Allen

Food Fight!

by: Andy Anderson

Tue Feb 23, 2010 at 16:33:46 PM PST

Last week I attended a screening of the excellent new movie Food Fight. This documentary recounts the rise of our industrial food system after World War II, along with countervailing efforts to keep our food safe, local, and tasting good!

The star of the film is the Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, and its founder and owner Alice Waters. During the riotous Sixties, she was appalled by the poor diets of her fellow protestors, and started the restaurant to provide high quality food in a "dinner party" environment. Over time she developed her own sources of local and organic food, avoiding more commercial sources in an effort to provide the most delicious food possible.

A number of other chefs are interviewed, including Wolfgang Puck and Ann Cooper (recently described here). The rise of farmers markets in many cities, as a source of local fruit, vegetables, et al. for both restaurants and individuals, is also an important story line.

Several organic farmers make an appearance, and describe their struggles to do more than produce low-cost and high-calorie commodity food stuffs. Some time is also spent recounting recent attempts to reform U.S. agriculture, focusing on Congressman Ron Kind (D-WI/La Crosse).

The movie also documents the efforts of MacArthur Fellow Will Allen of Growing Power in Milwaukee, and his daughter Alice in Chicago, to provide good-quality, low-cost food to the residents of inner city neighborhoods with few options besides the local mini-mart full of junk food and fast-food restaurants. The new wave of schools growing their own gardens is also highlighted.

Other interviewees describing the big picture include Michael Pollan of Omnivore's Dilemma fame, and academic Marion Nestle.

All in all, Food Fight is a thoroughly enjoyable film that uses humor to chronicle the absurdity of our food system and emphasizes the slow but revolutionary changes taking place at its margins. My one complaint about the film is that it completely ignores the parallel rise of food cooperatives as a source of good, whole, organic, and local food, an important complement to farmers markets in both availability and necessary staples such as grains. The same rebellious spirit embodied by Alice Waters gave rise to hundreds of small co-ops across the country, so I was quite surprised that they were not even mentioned. It seems that even they are still on the periphery in some parts of our alternative food economy.

Food Fight has been making the rounds of various film festivals, but will receive its theatrical debut on March 24 in Los Angeles, and will hopefully follow soon at a theater near you.

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Book Review: The War on Bugs by Will Allen

by: Jill Richardson

Sat Jan 30, 2010 at 12:36:39 PM PST

I just finished reading The War on Bugs by Will Allen (not the Will Allen of Growing Power - a different Will Allen) and I can't recommend it highly enough! This was a book that Allen was uniquely qualified to write. He grew up on a farm, and then went into the Marines where he was an atomic, biological, and chemical warfare paramedic. Following his years in the Marines, he went to college and - as part of his education - did research in the tropical forests of Peru, living among forest farmers. He says, "The ability of these [Peruvian] farmers to produce surpluses without chemicals in an environment ravaged by pests started me thinking that maybe the miracle chemicals that the sales men pushed were not so necessary after all." After college, Allen went back to farming. Upon taking a pesticide and fertilizer applicator's course at a local college, he found out that the chemicals commonly sprayed on farms were "modified versions of the nerve poisons and antipersonnel weapons that I learned about when studying chemical warfare in the Marine Corps."

So - with his firsthand observations of food grown without chemicals and his knowledge of the toxicity of common farm chemicals - Allen went to work finding out where our dependence and trust of pesticides came from in the first place. His findings actually surprised me. I knew part of the picture, which I wrote about in my own book. I don't think my book was inaccurate, but Allen fills in a lot of details and really makes it clear what happened and how.

More below.

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Growing Power: How They Work Their Miracles

by: Jill Richardson

Mon Oct 05, 2009 at 06:00:00 AM PDT

Yesterday, I wrote about Growing Power's urban farm in Milwaukee, focusing on the demographics of the neighborhood and the food sold in their store. This diary shows how they produce a lot of food on a very little space (2 acres) in a climate that is cold for much of the year.

I don't think it's possible that anyone could see what Growing Power does without feeling inspired. After coming home from my visit to Growing Power, I immediately got a worm bin. You'll see why below...

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Growing Power: First Impressions

by: Jill Richardson

Sun Oct 04, 2009 at 13:46:51 PM PDT

Last week, I visited Growing Power, the urban farm started by Will Allen. If Will Allen's name sounds familiar, that may be from his appearances on Good Morning America or in the New York Times, or from his Macarthur Genius Award, or from a few days before I visited Growing Power, when President Clinton called him "my hero." Growing Power's amazing, and I am absolutely not the first person to discover it. However, even though I was already well acquainted with the work of Will Allen and the success of Growing Power, I came away from my tour of the small Milwaukee urban farm absolutely inspired. Indeed, I think it would be impossible NOT to be transformed by it. I've always been amazed by the fervor of urban ag advocates, and now I feel like I understand. If Will Allen can do what he's done at Growing Power, then there is untold amounts of untapped potential in cities across this entire country.

This diary will give a description of the neighborhood where Growing Power is located and the food that is available in the Growing Power store.


A view of Growing Power's store

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Cognitive Dissonance No Problem For Clintons

by: Jill Richardson

Sun Sep 27, 2009 at 16:24:49 PM PDT

Hillary Clinton gave the closing remarks at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting this week. The subject? Solving global hunger. Her remarks are particularly important because, as Secretary of State, she oversees USAID, the agency that will administer any U.S. effort to feed the world. And it's no coincidence also that there is a particular effort going on right now to call for a "Second Green Revolution." That is, exporting industrial agriculture techniques, chemicals, and seeds to developing nations.

Where's the cognitive dissonance? When Bill Clinton spoke (he was there to introduce Hillary), he brought Will Allen up on stage and called Allen his "hero." Will Allen is one of my heroes too. I just got back from Allen's farm, a few hours ago actually. Growing Power, founded by Will Allen, is located in Milwaukee, WI. I've heard about it and written about it and finally I've seen it. They use sustainable, low input techniques to grow TONS of food. Year round, with relatively little fossil fuel heat, in a climate that is very cold for much of the year. They provide healthy food to a neighborhood that is 2 miles away from a grocery store in any direction.

Their first and foremost "crops" are compost and worms. Growing Power uses food waste and municipal waste (such as wood chips) to feed their worms and their methane digester. The methane then fuels furnaces, which heats water to 85F to allow tilapia to thrive. Tilapia are a warm water vegetarian fish. At Growing Power, they are grown in aquaponics systems that grow three crops stacked on top of one another - tilapia and two layers of plants such as watercress. The fish waste feeds the plants and the plants clean the water. The fish are highly productive, producing 1 lb of flesh per 1 lb of food. They also produce perch, cold water fish, also in aquaponics systems that grows crops on top of fish ponds. The perch eat soldier fly larvae, which live in Growing Power's compost. Using such agroecological, innovative systems, they produce a LOT of food in a very small amount of space. In addition to the plants (watercress, arugula, wheatgrass, other microgreens, spinach, tomatoes, and more), they also raise chickens for eggs, ducks and turkeys for meat, bees for pollination and honey, and goats (eventually for milk).

The inputs to Growing Power's farm are waste products (food, roots from harvested crops, manure, wood chips). They use some energy from the grid, I believe. But most of what they use can be gotten from their own livestock and plants, plus some rainwater harvesting. The innovations they showed us today did not involve GM crops, pesticides, or commercial fertilizer. They fertilize with compost and worm castings and they deal with pests with compost tea. So why, if the Clintons consider Will Allen their hero, are they pushing a form of agriculture that runs entirely counter to what Will Allen has proven so successful?

You can see a video of the Clintons' speeches here.

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Sustainable ag solutions and trendsetters at the movies

by: nourishthespirit

Thu Jun 11, 2009 at 17:43:10 PM PDT

While I do plan on seeing Food, Inc. and End of the Line as soon as this coming Monday, I'm happy to take a momentary break from movies highlighting problems in our screwed up food system. Just watching Flow again recently left me very depressed.

So I'm excited about two upcoming films playing in the San Francisco bay area while I am visiting. These have a positive spin and cover the progress made in our sustainable food movement.

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Will Allen's Good Food Manifesto

by: Jill Richardson

Mon May 11, 2009 at 16:00:00 PM PDT

If you've been in the sustainable food or food justice movements for any length of time, you know who Will Allen is and you know about the miracles he's worked on his small farm in Milwaukee, WI. Will Allen, a former professional basketball player, founded an urban farm in an area of Milwaukee that lacked access to healthy food. It's a small site, but since then he's expanded to other sites in Wisconsin and an edible garden in Grant Park in Chicago. Despite the cold climate, Will and his "youth corps" and staff raise livestock and grow fresh food year round. They aren't just growing food, they are Growing Power (which is also the name of the organization, of course).

As one of the most admired figures in our movement, Will has written up a Good Food Manifesto, which I am excited to share here. You can also find it as a PDF on the Growing Food and Justice site.

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Sampler Platter

by: Jill Richardson

Wed Mar 18, 2009 at 10:00:00 AM PDT

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Friday Night Happy Stories

by: Jill Richardson

Fri Sep 26, 2008 at 19:00:00 PM PDT

Tonight's happy story is about Will Allen, former pro-basketball player, urban farmer, activist, and now winner of the 2008 MacArthur Genius Award! Way to go Will!!!!

From the MacArthur site:

In 1995, while assisting neighborhood children with a gardening project, Allen began developing the farming methods and educational programs that are now the hallmark of the non-profit organization Growing Power, which he directs and co-founded. Guiding all is his efforts is the recognition that the unhealthy diets of low-income, urban populations, and such related health problems as obesity and diabetes, largely are attributable to limited access to safe and affordable fresh fruits and vegetables.

Grower Power is a role model to other communities interested in urban agriculture - not only for its sustainable methods (including an innovative aquaponics system used to raise tilapia), but also for its involvement of children. They have operations in Milwaukee and Chicago and they have trained urban agrarians all over the U.S.

With this award, Allen was given $500,000. I can't imagine a more worthy recipient!

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