How to feed 10,000 people from food grown on 3 acres in the city
Will Allen is proving that city farms work — big time. He’s not conjuring up theories; everything that he is teaching in cities across the country he learned over the course of 20 years with his hands in the dirt, a little money in his pocket and a survivalist’s smarts for innovating.
He grows food in ways that few have seen before — and he grows it sustainably. Allen’s 3-acre farm sits in the poorest part of Milwaukee and now feeds 10,000 people a year. It brought him a MacArthur grant and his neighbors good, healthy eating. The story is in Allen’s book The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities. [Ed. note: Read an excerpt from Allen’s book here.]
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: It’s 1993, you’ve got a good job, you are driving through one of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods, and you see a collection of broken-down greenhouses and a field of weeds. You decide to cash in your 401(k), buy them and become an urban farmer. Were you crazy?
Will Allen: I think my wife thought I was crazy and probably some other folks as well. But one of the things that I saw was a community that was densely populated: It was in a location that was halfway between two freeways, five blocks away was the largest housing project in Milwaukee, and the closest retail grocery store was about 4 miles away. I looked at this as a place where I could sell my farm produce.
LRK: You already had a farm and you decided to use this as the farm stand?
LRK: But instead you ended up producing 40 tons of food a year from those 3 acres.
WA: You could quantify it in a number of different ways. We grow enough food there to feed about 10,000 people in a very intense and integrated food system. We grow about 150 different crops in an unusual way.
We started out as a for-profit for the first 2 years. I was working with kids in the neighborhood, teaching them about where their food came from. Some of my friends said, “Why don’t you start a nonprofit?” I said, “No, I like working with kids. If we start doing this nonprofit piece, I would need help.” They volunteered to be the first board and do the administrative piece, because I said, “I don’t want to sit in the office and write grants.” That’s how we got started back in 1995.