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Big Man With a Plan for Big City Farming

A retired pro basketball player's program for growing organic fruits and vegetables on reclaimed urban land reaches all the way to the White House.

man gardening

— Matthew Gilson

Allen understands that benefit well. His father had been a sharecropper in South Carolina, and the son worked along with his father. Growing up, Allen figured the first chance he got he’d get himself into another profession. “Never again was I going to work as hard as that,” he said. But after graduating from the University of Miami (Allen was the first African American to play basketball there), then spending nearly a decade on professional courts in Florida and in Europe, he realized that the feeling for “shoveling up a garden” had come back and wouldn’t let go.

Allen returned to Milwaukee in 1976, took over some vacant land his wife’s family owned within the city limits and began to farm. He started working with kids at the YMCA and at the local schools, teaching them what he knew. Growing Power began sprouting up like a row of pole beans on a warm spring day. Inundated with requests to work with more and more schools, Allen found himself in the business of developing new ways to make urban farming work.

His vacant land in Milwaukee evolved into six farms: three in Wisconsin, and three in Illinois with 35 employees, and a budget that’s grown from zero to more than $2 million. As a result of Allen’s efforts, 60 locations in Chicago now use compost, turning 6 million pounds of food waste from the city into soil. In addition to vegetables, Growing Power produces worms for richer soil, organically grown tilapia, and free-range eggs. In fact, Growing Power has made Milwaukee what the locals call the number one Urban Egg City in the country.

Allen’s volunteer base is strong: He works with “farmers” as young as 4 to folks as old as 90. The food they grow is delivered to restaurants, schools, senior centers—basically anyone who needs a hand. Their Market Baskets contain 20 to 25 pounds of food, including 14 varieties of vegetables and fruit, which will feed a family of two to four for a week. Lower-income consumers can buy one for $16 a week; seniors pay half price. Into the baskets go potatoes, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, sunflower sprouts, salad mix, fruit (whatever is freshest), maybe a head of garlic—to Allen, it’s all about nutrition. The fresh-picked vegetables typically go from the field to the table within a day and a half. For his creativity and hard work, Allen received the Genius Award from the MacArthur Foundation—a monetary prize of $500,000.

Big Dreams

But Allen isn’t content to rest easy. “We’re losing farmland as we speak,” he says. “We need to salvage vacant lots in cities. And we need to figure out how to grow food closer to where people live.” Allen has already salvaged an abandoned basketball court in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green neighborhood by covering it with rich layers of compost and planting a thriving crop of tomatoes, peppers and corn. Another idea he’s contemplating: a five-story vertical farm, with a fish farm on the ground level and vegetables on ascending floors.

“We need to get a lot more people involved,” says Allen. “Fundamentally we need 50 million people growing food in backyards, side yards, on rooftops. That would finally transform high food prices, and change poor and unhealthy diets into healthy ones. “

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