Book review: ‘The Good Food Revolution,’ by Will Allen
Special to the Daily
No individual’s life story exists in a vacuum. Historical events and society impact lifestyles and a person’s journey. Few Americans have had as bumpy a road to travel as African Americans, who still face racism. For them, the legacy of slavery is never too far in the background, as the shockwaves still permeate generations of its descendants.
It has been well documented that many minority groups suffer disproportionately from poverty and inequality. For instance, blacks experience a greater proportion of dietary-influenced diseases. A desire to remedy the problem comes with the necessity of understanding the history of the African American community’s journey out of the South and the aftereffects of slavery. Nobody has a better perspective than someone who lived that transition. No one is still alive who experienced slavery firsthand, but there are people who grew up in families that were a part of the Great Migration out of the South and whose ancestors felt the sting of slavery’s sharecropping legacy.
TAKING A FOOD JOURNEY
One such person is food advocate and farmer Will Allen, author of “The Good Food Revolution.” He began his own food journey as the son of a sharecropper family that left South Carolina for Washington, D.C., in hopes of discarding their rural way of life. The family turned its back on a lifestyle that allowed them to feed themselves with food they grew. His mother had the knowledge of seasonal eating and of using every part of an animal. There was an inherent efficiency and a symbiosis with the land and its produce.
In 1920, close to 1 million African Americans were farmers, one of the only professions available to them following emancipation. Today, the author laments, there are fewer than 20,000 pursuing farming as a profession. There has been a debate, historically, about the post-slavery African American community’s best path to success, with W.E.B Dubois arguing for an abandonment of the past and Booker T. Washington advocating the need to embrace the deeply ingrained skill sets. Dubois’ model won out, producing many accomplished and iconic contributors to society, but farmers were never a part of his vision of an elite, upwardly mobile race of people.
Though progress for blacks has been slow, it has been steady except, Allen feels, in regards to the health, with statistics for diabetes, obesity and heart disease, among many other things, decidedly off-kilter from other national demographics. The problem, he insists, has many fangs, primarily too much harmful food available and a community that often goes hungry due to economic hardship.
Allen is quick to point out that blacks do not have a monopoly on this problem; the problem, he maintains, is with the food system as a whole and a generation of young people disconnected from what they eat. He says that they “rarely eat fresh foods, don’t know how to grow or prepare them and, in many cases, can’t even identify them. They have become entirely dependent on a food system that is harming them.”
RECLAIMING HIS ROOTS
To clarify the magnitude of the problem, he turns the spotlight on himself, acknowledging that he was taught to feel ashamed of his agrarian past, but he is now proud to say that his ancestry refused to be denied. It was only when he left his life’s other endeavors — in the corporate domain and the world of professional basketball — that he rediscovered his latent passion for the land. His first farming venture was in the heart of Milwaukee, near the city’s largest housing project. At the time, he was one of only 25 blacks in the entire state of Wisconsin working as a professional farmer.
His land purchase, a series of old florist greenhouses, a barn and some acres with depleted and neglected soil, was the start of a project that he hoped would help provide fresh, organic food to his inner-city neighbors, as well as teach youth to tend the land. Allen quickly realized that the key to his longevity as a farmer and his desire to give back to underprivileged youth was to enter the nonprofit arena, as he saw the for-profit world of farming only allowed for the “go big or go home” scenario. He also realized that a modified community-supported agriculture approach would be needed, for most lower-income people couldn’t afford to participate in a co-op or contribute volunteer time. He emphasizes that in poor neighborhoods, even if there is a will for healthy eating, there is rarely an affordable way to achieve that goal.
IMPORTANCE OF URBAN FARMING
As his project grew and the community of supporters, business partners and employees expanded, Allen saw the true value in the challenging task of bringing urban farming into the mainstream. He dealt with the daily realization that most of the children he encountered had never plunged their hands into soft soil and had never held a seed. His own visceral memories of childhood food — the tastes and textures, as well as the communal warmth that surrounded the family table — were motivating forces as he struggled to be the vanguard of the “good food revolution” in his community.
The shift to more urban farming will inevitably be a slow one, he acknowledges, because the rewards are often so long in coming and the temptations of the industrial food apparatus so pervasive. As with all things on a small scale, it is about the importance of personal relationships; he advocates that gardens should not be about fences but about cultivating bonds with neighbors. Instead of punishing the boys who initially threw rocks through his greenhouse windows, he hired them, empowering them and earning their respect. As Allen says, “My father taught me that the fate of a seed can be predicted by the health of the soil where it takes root. It can be true, in another sense, of people.”
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