For the past three years or so I’ve been collecting books on black people’s historical and contemporary relationship with farming. My love affair with the topic began when I tuned into John Robbin’s Food Revolution Summit, which I had been doing since its inception. Although I love and respect the work that John and Ocean Robbins do with their FREE yearly summit, in the early days of the summit I couldn’t help but lament the absence of black voices as experts on the topics of food, health, nutrition, the inextricable human relationship to the earth and its other precious inhabitants. I must say that the Robbins are responsive to their audience: they just recently sent out a survey asking which food activists people would like to have featured in next year’s summit. Go here if you’d like to chime in.
I was delighted when a couple of years back one of the speakers interviewed during the summit was Will Allen, son of a sharecropper, former professional basketball player, and executive of KFC and Proctor and Gamble turned farmer and founder of the U.S.’s preeminent sustainable urban farm, Growing Power. For his tireless work with urban farming Allen was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Award/Fellowship, the proceeds of which he completely reinvested in his sustainable urban farm. As Allen explains early in his book, The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities (2012), blacks have a fraught relationship with the earth resultant from their ancestral experience in the United States of slavery and sharecropping with a legacy that is still very much present and prescient today.
After a few false starts—I’d spot the book on my bookshelf, pick it up and read a few pages, put it down—a few days before my trip to Virginia this past June I decided that it was time to dive in and I am so glad I did. Allen’s story is truly inspiring. The work that he is doing to not only bring fresh healthy food to disfranchised communities, but also empower people to truly take their destinies into their own hands is nothing short of miraculous.
In The Good Food Revolution Allen not only recounts his journey from corporate worker to urban farmer and activist, but he provides compelling detours into the lives of those who have worked closely with him almost from the very beginning, namely Karen Parker and her two children, DeShawn and DeShell Walker. He also recounts, in for me, an interesting way his bout with two cancer diagnoses. I say that his way of writing about his diagnoses is interesting because he seems to treat them as just another of the many obstacles that he had to overcome in his quest to build his urban garden into a movement—they are never the focus of his story.
For someone who might be interested in getting into urban gardening Allen provides detailed descriptions of his hydroponic tilapia fish operation as well as his vermiculture production and multi-tiered growing system, making these somewhat daunting endeavors seem quite doable. I looked up Allen’s website, www.growingpower.org, and found that his organization sells the worms as well as the castings for composting.
In many ways the book strikes me as one that strives to appeal to a broad swath of people, regardless of race or economic background. It, however, cannot be ignored that Allen is a 6’7″ black man in Milwaukee, another of the infamous most segregated cities in America, empowering people who have been historically disfranchised because of their race and economic condition and conditioning. As such, his discussion towards the end of the book about his entering into a collaborative partnership with Walmart was disturbing to say the least. He says about the collaboration:
I was not unaware of the reputation that Walmart had in the progressive community. For years, Walmart has been viewed as undercutting small businesses with its pricing, making it difficult for family businesses to survive. The addition of supermarket megastores in the mid-1990s has made the corporation the largest food retailer in the United States, and the company has undoubtedly contributed to the decades-long trend that has made it difficult for smaller grocers and a regional system to thrive (224).
Nonetheless, as a self-described pragmatist, Allen concludes that simply wishing Walmart gone was not going to make it go away and if the company was going to buy more local food, then he was willing to partner with it to try to make that happen (224-5).
While I agree with Allen in principle it seems to me that in entering into a “partnership” with big business he runs the risk of handing over the power that he has worked so hard to secure for himself and his community to that same big business. At this point I am hard-pressed to find a well-known chain of supermarkets that is controlled by people of color. I remember standing in a Kroger market a few days after November 8th and reflecting on this fact. If Kroger and Meijers and Whole Foods and Trader Joes and Lucky’s decided that my neighborhood was no longer profitable for them my neighbors and I would be f**ked! So, as soon as spring hit my beloved and I got our first community garden plot. We’ve got zucchini and tomatoes and peppers, collards, arugula, and kale, coming out the wazoo already. I supplement our bounty with my Saturday morning trips to the farmers market in downtown Ypsi where I spend the time catching up with my cherished farmer friends and asking questions about how best to prepare the gorgeous produce that they bring especially for me each week. I am fortunate to live somewhere where this is an option.
Despite the difference in outlook regarding Walmart I am grateful that Will Allen exists in this world and in his community. I am grateful for the work that he has dedicated his life to. I am grateful for the immeasurable difference that he is making in people’s lives. He is truly a gift.
My only other uneasiness with The Good Food Revolution is that while Allen talks briefly about his wife, Cyndy, relatively early in the book, she quickly falls away. I found myself wondering at several points in the text how she felt about all the changes the family underwent over the years.
For parents who might be interested in introducing their children to Will Allen’s work a children’s book, Farmer Will Allen and The Growing Table (2013) would be a good bet.