Cook: Green side up

Cook: Green side up

February 24th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

"It can be done. We just have to have the will to do it."

- Will Allen

Before he became one of the most important men in America, Will Allen was driving through a neglected Milwaukee street, crumbs from donuts and fried chicken scattered across his car, on his way to another joyless day in a job he didn't like.

Then he saw a row of greenhouses. For sale.

It was like a north star.

Today, two decades and hundreds of tons of compost later, Allen could be the most well-known farmer in the U.S. His worm farms. His soil building. His revolutionary vision to create urban food systems.

"It's all about the food we eat," said the MacArthur Fellow.

Allen, who runs Growing Power in Milwaukee, will speak Tuesday to the public at UTC's Roland Hayes Auditorium as part of the Benwood Foundation's George T. Hunter Lecture Series.

The free event begins at 7 p.m.

"I have a thousand-image PowerPoint," Allen said over the phone (I'm still not sure whether he was joking).

You may not be a farmer. More comfortable with collars than collards. Karats, not carrots.

But Allen's story is the Everyman's tale. The American story. Because it braids together all the things in our lives: food, health and happiness.

"Passion," said Allen, who stands 6 feet 7 inches tall.

Allen's family tree is rooted in farming. Sharecroppers, family gardens, suppers that lasted for hours. So when he saw that long-ago greenhouse, Allen, working for Procter & Gamble after a pro basketball career dried up, felt his heart leap; he jumped off the corporate ladder and into the Milwaukee dirt.

Over time, he built his two-acre urban Milwaukee city farm into a national model.

"I call it the good-food revolution," he said.

Picture it: a few-acre farm built atop urban asphalt and concrete. Folks collect waste -- coffee grounds, brewery leftovers, food scraps from restaurants and schools -- which is composted into something so soil-rich Allen nicknames it "black gold."

"This past year, we've [turned] 40 million pounds of food and carbon residue into compost," he said.

Forty tons of vegetables grown each year. Under the summer sun. In year-round greenhouses. A five-story vertical farm.

"The first in the world," he said.

People are employed. Neighbors and kids educated. Other backyard gardens are planted. Programs funded.

"We're going to start getting folks slow cookers," he said.

Millions of composting worms. Thousands of fish (tilapia) are grown in an aqua-culture barrel system. Laying hens. Honey.

Disease drops. Despair drops. Good things grow. People, too.

"They can do things they've never been able to do before," he said. "Their whole outlook on life changes."

At a time when life expectancy can be predicted by ZIP code, eating too much bad food is one of the top killers in the U.S., and our obesity crisis costs more than $300 billion a year -- says Allen's book "The Good Food Revolution" -- then maybe it's time we put some heavier attention on the food we grow and eat.

Urban composting becomes part of candidates' political platforms. We talk about STEM schools, but also saving seeds. Raised beds.

Worm poop.

What I love about Allen is that, for all his genius, he keeps it simple. Follow your heart. Grow good food. In the city. For people.

And what I love about Chattanooga is that so many, many people here already understand that, too.

"My story is the story of thousands of people," he said.

Here's to thousands more.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.