A passion for farming: Milwaukee man brings urban garden insights to city

A passion for farming: Milwaukee man brings urban garden insights to city

February 27th, 2013 by Yolanda Putman in Local Regional News

Will Allen, owner of the Milwaukee, Wis., nonprofit and land trust Growing Power, speaks Tuesday to Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy sixth-graders about his life and career as a farmer. Allen took questions from the group that ranged from how to get started as a farmer to soil quality and worms.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Growing Power's urban gardening provided more than 100 jobs in Milwaukee and delivered food for hundreds of people there who did not have access to fruits and vegetables.

Urban gardening will do no less for Chattanooga, according to Will Allen.

"I want them to see what the possibilities are," said Allen, chief executive officer of Growing Power, the largest greenhouse operation in Wisconsin. "The same thing we're doing in Milwaukee can happen in any small town in America or any large town in America."

The 64-year-old former basketball player and farmer spoke at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Tuesday as part of the Hunter Lecture series. He's been speaking at schools all week and will participate in a roundtable discussion on the future of urban gardening in Chattanooga at Gaining Ground, a Benwood Foundation program, at noon today.

John Bilderback, Step One program manager with the Chattanooga Hamilton County Health Department, also will participate in the roundtable conversation.

"We're mainly going to talk about various opportunities to increase the growth of healthy food, fruits and vegetables, in a more urban environment and here locally."

Allen toured the city and commended Chattanooga when he saw a downtown garden growing on top of asphalt.

"People want to do it," he said.

Having successful urban gardens will depend on the city's leadership and its willingness to break down some of the zoning ordinances so people can grow food and have chickens and bees in their backyard, Allen said.

"It's a matter of all the politicos and corporate companies coming to what I call the good food revolution table and figure out how they're going to do it," he said.

Chattanooga has a training farm where people can learn more about growing soil and vegetation. That's a good start, Allen said.

The city also has at least 30 community gardens that began with its Step One program.

Several gardens are planted to bring produce to neighborhoods that don't have easy access to grocery stores.

"Healthy food access is still an issue," said Bilderback. "We've made progress with the Chattanooga mobile market. But we want to continue to increase access to healthy food."

Chattanooga's food desert includes communities such as Alton Park, Orchard Knob and East Chattanooga. It includes 61,924 people, 23 fast-food chain restaurants and two grocery stores, according to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department.

But Milwaukee was a total food desert, Allen said. Several grocery stores left the city in the 1970s and never returned.

Allen and other organizations have been feeding people in communities with no grocery stores by growing food in lower-income areas and having drop sites at schools and social service agencies where bags of food are delivered each week. There are about 20 pounds of fruits and vegetables in each bag, Allen said.

Crime and violence also are alleviated with urban gardens, he said.

Allen said people think less about crime when they have a legitimate means to earn a living, and youths have less idle time if they have employment through an urban gardening program. More jobs are created when residents buy from community farmers, because money continues to circulate in the community, not to mention the nutritional value that comes with growing your own food, he said.