A Good Food Manifesto for America

June 10, 2009 | Author: Will Allen | 20 Comments

Will Allen at Growing Power

I am a farmer.

While I find that this has come to mean many other things to other people – that I have become also a trainer and teacher, and to some a sort of food philosopher – I do like nothing better than to get my hands into good rich soil and sow the seeds of hope.

So, spring always enlivens me and gives me the energy to make haste, to feel confidence, to take full advantage of another all-too-short Wisconsin summer.

This spring, however, much more so than in past springs, I feel my hope and confidence mixed with a sense of greater urgency. This spring, I know that my work will be all the more important, for the simple but profound reason that more people are hungry.

For years I have argued that our food system is broken, and I have tried to teach what I believe must be done to fix it. This year, and last, we have begun seeing the unfortunate results of systemic breakdown. We have seen it in higher prices for those who can less afford to pay, in lines at local food pantries, churches and missions, and in the anxious eyes of people who have suddenly become unemployed. We have seen it, too, in nationwide outbreaks of food-borne illness in products as unlikely as spinach and peanuts.

Severe economic recession certainly has not helped matters, but the current economy is not alone to blame. This situation has been spinning toward this day for decades. And while many of my acquaintances tend to point the finger at the big agro-chemical conglomerates as villains, the fault really is with all of us who casually, willingly, even happily surrendered our rights to safe, wholesome, affordable and plentiful food in exchange for over-processed and pre-packaged convenience.

Over the past century, we allowed our agriculture to become more and more industrialized, more and more reliant on unsustainable practices, and much more distant from the source to the consumer. We have allowed corn and soybeans, grown on the finest farmland in the world, to become industrial commodities rather than foodstuffs. We have encouraged a system by which most of the green vegetables we eat come from a few hundred square miles of irrigated semi-desert in California.

When fuel prices skyrocket, as they did last year, things go awry. When a bubble like ethanol builds and then bursts, things go haywire. When drought strikes that valley in California, as is happening right now, things start to topple. And when the whole economy shatters, the security of a nation’s food supply teeters on the brink of failure.

To many people, this might sound a bit hysterical. There is still food in the suburban supermarket aisles, yes. The shelves are not empty; there are no bread lines. We haven’t read of any number of Americans actually starving to death.

No, and were any of those things to happen, you can rest assured that there would be swift and vigorous action. What is happening is that many vulnerable people, especially in the large cities where most of us live, in vast urban tracts where there are in fact no supermarkets, are being forced to buy cheaper and lower-quality foods, to forgo fresh fruits and vegetables, or are relying on food programs – including our children’s school food programs – that by necessity are obliged to distribute any kind of food they can afford, good for you or not. And this is coming to haunt us in health care and social costs. No, we are not suddenly starving to death; we are slowly but surely malnourishing ourselves to death. And this fate is falling ever more heavily on those who were already stressed: the poor. Yet there is little action.

Many astute and well-informed people beside myself, most notably Michael Pollan, in a highly persuasive treatise last fall in the New York Times, have issued these same warnings and laid out the case for reform of our national food policy. I need not go on repeating what Pollan and others have already said so well, and I do not wish merely to add my voice to a chorus.

I am writing to demand action.

It is time and past time for this nation, this government, to react to the dangers inherent in its flawed farm and food policies and to reverse course from subsidizing wealth to subsidizing health.

We have to stop paying the largest farm subsidies to large growers of unsustainable and inedible crops like cotton. We have to stop paying huge subsidies to Big Corn, Big Soy and Big Chem to use prime farmland to grow fuel, plastics and fructose. We have to stop using federal and state agencies and institutions as taxpayer-funded research arms for the very practices that got us into this mess.

We have to start subsidizing health and well-being by rewarding sustainable practices in agriculture and assuring a safe, adequate and wholesome food supply to all our citizens. And we need to start this reform process now, as part of the national stimulus toward economic recovery.

In my organization, Growing Power Inc. of Milwaukee, we have always before tried to be as self-sustaining as possible and to rely on the market for our success. Typically, I would not want to lean on government support, because part of the lesson we teach is to be self-reliant.

But these are not typical times, as we are now all too well aware.

As soon as it became clear that Congress would pass the National Recovery Act, I and members of my staff brainstormed ideas for a meaningful stimulus package aimed at creating green jobs, shoring up the security of our urban food systems, and promoting sound food policies of national scope. The outcome needed to be both “shovel-ready” for immediate impact and sustainable for future growth.

Centers for Urban Argriculture

We produced a proposal for the creation of a public-private enabling institution called the Centers for Urban Agriculture. It would incorporate a national training and outreach center, a large working urban farmstead, a research and development center, a policy institute, and a state-of-the-future urban agriculture demonstration center into which all of these elements would be combined in a functioning community food system scaled to the needs of a large city.

We proposed that this working institution – not a “think tank” but a “do tank” – be based in Milwaukee, where Growing Power has already created an operating model on just two acres. But ultimately, satellite centers would become established in urban areas across the nation. Each would be the hub of a local or regional farm-to-market community food system that would provide sustainable jobs, job training, food production and food distribution to those most in need of nutritional support and security.

This proposal was forwarded in February to our highest officials at the city, state and federal level, and it was greeted with considerable approval. Unfortunately, however, it soon became clear that the way Congress had structured the stimulus package, with funds earmarked for only particular sectors of the economy, chiefly infrastructure, afforded neither our Congressional representatives nor our local leaders with the discretion to direct any significant funds to this innovative plan. It simply had not occurred to anyone that immediate and lasting job creation was plausible in a field such as community-based agriculture.

I am asking Congress today to rectify that oversight, whether by modifying the current guidelines of the Recovery Act or by designating new and dedicated funds to the development of community food systems through the creation of this national Centers for Urban Agriculture.

Our proposal budgeted the initial creation of this CUA at a minimum of $63 million over two years – a droplet compared to the billions being invested in other programs both in the stimulus plan and from year-to-year in the federal budget.

Consider that the government will fund the Centers for Disease Control at about $8.8 billion this year, and that is above the hundreds of millions more in research grants to other bio-medical institutions, public and private. This is money well spent for important work to ensure Americans the best knowledge in protecting health by fighting disease; but surely by now we ought to recognize that the best offense against many diseases is the defense provided by a healthy and adequate diet. Yet barely a pittance of CDC money goes for any kind of preventive care research.

In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security approved spending $450 million for a new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility at Kansas State University, in addition to the existing Biosecurity Research Institute already there. Again, money well spent to protect our food supply from the potential of a terrorist attack. But note that these hundreds of millions are being spent to protect us from a threat that may never materialize, while we seem to trivialize the very real and material threat that is upon us right now: the threat of malnourishment and undernourishment of very significant number of our citizens.

Government programs under the overwhelmed and overburdened departments of Agriculture and of Health and Human Services do their best to serve their many masters, but in the end, government farm and food policies are most often at odds between the needs of the young, the old, the sick and the poor versus the wants of the super-industry that agriculture has become.

By and large, the government’s funding of nutritional health comes down to spending millions on studies to tell us what we ought to eat without in any way guaranteeing that many people will be able to find or afford the foods they recommend. For instance, food stamps ensure only that poor people can buy food; they cannot ensure that, in the food deserts that America’s inner cities have become, there will be any good food to buy.

We need a national nutrition plan that is not just another entitlement, that is not a matter of shipping surplus calories to schools, senior centers, and veterans’ homes. We need a plan that encourages a return to the best practices of both farming and marketing, that rewards the grower who protects the environment and his customers by nourishing his soil with compost instead of chemicals and who ships his goods the shortest distance, not the longest.

If the main purpose of government is to provide for the common security of its citizens, surely ensuring the security of their food system must be among its paramount duties. And if among our rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we are denied all those rights if our cities become prisons of poverty and malnutrition.

As an African-American farmer, I am calling on the first African-American president of the United States to lead us quickly away from this deepening crisis. Demand, President Obama, that Congress and your own Administration begin without delay the process of reforming our farm and food policies. Start now by correcting the omission in your economic stimulus and recovery act that prevented significant spending on creating new and sustainable jobs for the poor in our urban centers as well as rural farm communities.

It will be an irony, certainly, but a sweet one, if millions of African-Americans whose grandparents left the farms of the South for the factories of the North, only to see those factories close, should now find fulfillment in learning once again to live close to the soil and to the food it gives to all of us.

I would hope that we can move along a continuum to make sure that all of citizens have access to the same fresh, safe, affordable good food regardless of their cultural, social or economic situation.

Comments (20)


  1. james says:

    I feel like you stole all my ideas! :) I was hashing out many of these ideas about 6 months ago. Will, you are way more qualified than I am and I’m so glad you are leading the way. I cant wait to become involved, though it will be a while… but for now, what can anyone who reads this do to help you push your agenda forward?? Write our congress people?

  2. Harriet says:

    Will, you are such a motivating character to others. I enjoyed reading your article because I love gardening and started a community garden “Redeemer Community Garden” just this year and regardless of usual challenges, we are having fabulous healthy fresh vegetable that is beginning to build a health community in the neighbourhood.

    Congragulations! you are ahead and your articles motivates me and hope the community gardeners will all see the important points and agree with your result oriented leadership style.

    Thank you for the publication of the article. I am insearch of more information on Community garden.

  3. Patrick says:


    Greetings from the Netherlands, I understand you were here recently.

    Your website and blog look great, your message is even better. Congratulations on the MacArthur Fellowship!

    You are well spoken and your writing is very engaging and motivating. I look forward to hearing more from you. Good luck with everything!

  4. Will,
    Beautifully stated, inspiring, motivating, real…great ideas. Your point about the threat of terrorism versus the threat of malnutrition is such a good one. I will post about this on my blog and think of other ways to promote your message.
    Congratulations and thank you.
    Robin Horton
    Urban Gardens

  5. Cynthia says:

    Hello Will, Thank you, thank you, thank you for what you do.
    We met when you came to Charlottesville, Va. and as then, I am inspired by your life’s work! Your inclusiveness with people is the best. Seeing the table of faces in the trailer for the movie “Fresh” says so much as does your respect for kids. At our little farmers market in Crozet, Va., we have many kid vendors, they love it! My own several kids & grandkids take part.
    Love the music in your part of the movie trailer!
    Don’t forget to take a little rest now & then, Thanks again, Cynthia

  6. Billy Gordon says:

    The great Willie Allen,three time All Metropolitan basketball player from Richard Montgomery High School here in Rockville,Maryland continues to be amazing.I remember the times I visited his home when we were kids together.His parents always had the most beautiful as well as productive vegetable growing area I had ever seen.Always lots of chickens and of course lots of eggs.The meals we shared at Willie’s home were always healthy,fresh,large and delicious.Willie’s dad,O.W.,was a master farmer so he learned from one of the best.All of us back here at home in Montgomery County are extremely proud of “Big Will” because he was always a very special human being.His kindness and generosity was evident even as a kid.I have an urban property area right here in Rockville where I know we can produce a bountiful harvest of vegetables.We just need “Big Will’s” expertise to show us how it can be done. PLEASE ask the big guy to contact his old team mate and buddy at 301-670-8242 so we employ some of his great knowledge and spread the good word about GROWING POWER. GOD BLESS

  7. Will – KUDOS for what you have accomplished and still set out to do! I, too, am concerned that we are malnurishing ourselves – seniors and kids espescially – to death.

    I watched my father slowly die as his organs gasped for vitamin K, calcium, iron and such – things we were harvesting out of my farm, that he was uneducated about eating. It is sad when a parent of a farmer is malnurished because of ignorance.

    I think the day has come when we need a paradigm shift in what is “in” and what is vouge. It used to be thought of as poor to “have to grow your own” food. Now, if we don’t, we can’t always afford the freshest, healthiest – or as you’ve pointed out in the inner cities, even FIND it. It is no longer thought of or taught to eat out as a special occasion – it is a daily fare – and a horrible diet.

    I opened up 8000 sq ft of my place for community garden – it is only 1 of the many plates I spin though and only a few families partake as awareness of its availabilty may be low. And we have had nutrition classes, have cooking and food preserving classes planned, and I am always around for answering gardening how-to questions – I love to teach folks how to grow it themselves – making them self sufficient.

    We are going to hold a free screening of FRESH! here at the farm in September. We’ve been blessed to have Edible DFW join us and secure a speaker, Pamela Walker – Growing Good Things to Eat in Texas during our pre-movie dinner. We’re raising money for the Gleaning Network of Texas, as our local, very talented chef, David Gilbert, prepares a creative $55 plate vegetarian feast out of whatever we throw at him a few days before the event – and in Texas in mid Sept, that won’t be much…but it’s going to be local, organic and fresh.

    Together – we can raise awareness – and create jobs and farms in town. If we can re-align our city governments to realize that not every square acre needs to be concrete and brick, we have a chance. But you’re right, we need to create the jobs for the economic vitality of the community – as well as the healthy eating of it. And that takes capital. This farm has started up via CSA – a very dedicated core group and some who have come and gone, supporting us as they are able. I have a dream for this land, too. And it is going to happen – with or without a stimulus check, but that would be nice to see small farmers get some help for a change. We can’t eat all that corn or soybeans – and wouldnt’ want to anyway. We need to grow local FOOD.

    Keep up the good work – Come see us in Texas if you’re ever in town.
    Eden’s Garden

  8. Bob Nylin says:

    Willie”T”: You are an amazing man. All of the University of Miami Basketball Alumni are in awe of your success. Congratulations!!! You have come along way from RMHS and make us all proud. PS: Spag is going to try organize a reunion for those who were playing on the 1971 team. Hope to see you there. I concur with Billy G….you are a very special human being. BN

  9. Sasha Morales says:

    Hi Will, I’m currently a junior at the St.Croix Educational Complex High School on St.Croix in the United States Virgin Islands and I volunteered with you during the summer from Aug.17, 09- Aug.21, 09. I was one of the students on the trip with the Young Farmers Training Program with Fort Valley State University in Fort Valley, Goergia. I had a great time with your staff. I spent time with Sarah, Sophie, Karen, Jay, Katie, and others that I did alot of manual labor with. I leraned alot and had a great experience; one that I will never forget. I am taking initiative and informing others of the importance of agriculture especially organic farming. I’m also encouraging others to compost and recycle because we need to decrease polution to gain a brighter future seeing as it looks so bleek. After that week I gained alot of appreciation for OUR land and I became very humble. I never knew that people still worked manually since technology is advancing so fast.

    Thank You for the opportunity to advance my knowledge in the field of agriculture. It was one that I would NEVER forget. THANK YOU!!!!

  10. Salem says:

    Hey Will.
    Please run for President in 2012…we can’t afford another 4 years of inaction, or worse, the continuation of handouts to Big Corn & Big Soy (only to feed US Beef instead of the malnutritioned populace).
    Thank you for devoting your life to humanitarian farming and inspiring me to do so as well!

  11. Thomas Ellis says:

    Hi, Will–

    What you are doing is truly visionary and inspiring, for it is solving many of our most urgent problems simultaneously: feeding the hungry with nutritious, wholesome, organic food; increasing soil fertility without fertilizers and pesticides; giving young people something empowering and hopeful to do; healing and regenerating urban communities; increasing economic and agricultural self-sufficiency; promoting collaboration between urban and rural farmers; modeling a more adaptive, sustainable lifestyle for all of us; instilling a love for life itself and for our Earth in the younger generations; and thereby saving the planet!

    God bless you.

  12. [...] A Good Food Manifesto for America (Click Here for the Full Text) [...]

  13. Amy says:

    Hi Will,
    Well you were right. I’m not surprised. It is all about RELATIONSHIPS (and worms!). As a Com.Urban Ag. grad, I’ve spent the summer making them, and now, 6 months later, we’ve finally got our three acres in the city (well almost city). Now the composting starts! Volunteers are showing up regularly, and its so much fun. I look forward to seeing you again…in Michigan. Thanks for who you are, and all that you teach the rest of us.

  14. [...] within the previous link, but worth its own mention, is Will Allen’s Good Food Manifesto from the website Growing Power, [...]

  15. I will be glad to participate in the development of a CUA in New York City and focus its attention squarely on our school system. We will go forward with or without funding from the government and we will succeed as long as we keep our intentions good and our eyes on the prize. Thank you Will and all who helped compose this message and proposal, your work will not go unrewarded! Peace,

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