Will Allen, an urban farmer and MacArthur Foundation genius grant winner, is in Raleigh tonight delivering this message: We need to act now to fix a food system that is broken.
"I'm asking people to join the revolution," Allen said during a phone interview.
Allen is the 2009 sustainable agriculture lecturer for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems. He will be speaking about successful urban farming at 7 tonight at the McKimmon Center at N.C. State University. The event is free and open to the public. He also will be speaking in Goldsboro earlier in the day.
A former professional basketball player and Proctor & Gamble executive, Allen, 60, has become an evangelist for and expert on urban farming. In 1993, he bought a two-acre farm within the city limits of Milwaukee with the condition that he would hire and teach local teenagers about farming. (He and his family had been farming his wife's 100-acre farm in suburban Milwaukee since the 1970s.)
Allen said The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did a story about an organic gardening project at the inner-city farm and he was quoted talking about how children learn life skills from farming. After that, Allen was inundated with requests from schools and nonprofits that wanted to bring children to the farm and get involved.
That's when Growing Power, the nonprofit, was born. That tiny urban farm has spawned an organization with 35 employees, farms in Milwaukee and Chicago, and seven collaborative training centers from Massachusetts to Florida.
In 2008, Allen became only the second working farmer to win a $500,000 genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation.
Allen credits authors such as Michael Pollan, who wrote "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food," for exposing how the industrial food system hurts the environment and serves up calorie-laden diets. He is focused on the problem of "food deserts," urban areas where no fresh, healthy food can be found.
But Allen wants to see more than talk about the problems with the food system. He wants people to take action to support local farmers, build infrastructure for a local food economy and support agricultural economic development.
"We need to take some concrete action," he said. "They have a responsibility to get involved because food is so important to our lives. The health of our nation is really at risk right now."
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