Teaching from the ground up: Former basketball pro helps folks learn to grow fresh food

CorrespondentNovember 16, 2012 

“We grew 95 percent of the food we ate,” Will Allen said of the Maryland farm where he grew up.

Founder and CEO of Growing Power, a national nonprofit, the former basketball pro is a trailblazer in the urban farm movement.

His organization teaches people to become community farmers so they will have access to fresh, affordable and nutritious foods. It has farms in Milwaukee, Merton, Wisc., and Chicago, and has training sites in five states.

A MacArthur Genius Award winner and author of “The Good Food Revolution,” Allen stood with first lady Michelle Obama when she introduced her Let’s Move initiative. He says the White House vegetable garden has inspired 10 million people to garden.

Growing Power trains more than 1,000 new farmers a year, and Allen was in the Triangle last week to lead workshops at Longview School and Interfaith Food Shuttle, both in Raleigh.

Since 1993, Growing Power’s national training center, a two-acre urban farm, has produced enough food to feed tens of thousands of people in the Milwaukee area each year.

“If people can grow safe, healthy, affordable food, if they have access to land and clean water, this is transformative on every level in a community,” Allen, the son of a sharecropper, said. “We cannot have healthy communities without a healthy food system.”

Everybody has a part to play in this food chain, Allen said.

“Seniors can pass along their knowledge to the next generation,” he said. “We’re growing new farmers, but will also need architects, engineers, financial people, truck drivers, composters, soil scientists, dieticians and so forth. Food breaks down the barriers and brings people together.”

He spoke with me during a break in his visit:

Q: Do inner city youth readily embrace your programs?

In the inner cities they really don’t have that much to do, so whenever there’s an opportunity for them to do something different, they want to try it. And that’s the opportunity we have to really engage them and take them along a path of transformation, especially in communities where kids are not eating healthy.

Our work is about building a new food system and really teaching them from the ground up – how to grow soil, how to grow healthy food, how to harvest it, how to prepare it and how to eat it so they can become the voices of the community about healthy food and bring that message even back to their own families. Many of the kids involved in the thousands of youth programs we’re developing around the country are now teaching their parents about healthy food. So they really have taken the leadership role of this movement in a lot of ways.

Q: How can gardening educators here help the movement in North Carolina?

Educators really have to learn how to teach hands-on training. I was an education major in college and one of the things you don’t learn is how to teach hands-on, so we’re training a lot of teachers around the country to do that.

Q: How can people get involved?

We have a very expansive website at growingpower.org listing a lot of different training programs that people can sign up for. We’re very much engaged in training teachers in Milwaukee, so we want to develop this training center down here in North Carolina to be able to do some of the same things in this community as well.

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