Will Allen, a former pro-basketball player, is leading a movement to introduce food growing practices into urban contexts. He recently won a MacArthur Genius Award, which has significantly raised the profile of his work. His non-profit organization, Growing Power, Inc. boasts the following mission statement: “Inspiring communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound, creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time.”

Allen summarizes his vision for food reform in a piece titled “A Good Food Manifesto for America.” He identifies problems that have been discussed by such writers as Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry.

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.

His call for sustainable food policy that does not ignore the inner city poor provides an important voice in a conversation that all to often seems oriented primarily to the upper middle classes.

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.

May Allen’s work flourish.

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm. See books written by Mark Mitchell.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Sometimes the answer to centralization really is just decentralization.

    While I’ll happily support urban agriculture; my sympathies lie with bringing the urb to the ager and not the other way round.

    Most all food policy conundra start with the unnecessary assumption: how do we feed New York?

    I say: Don’t make food policies to feed New York; New York will then “right-size.”

    But, in terms of reacquainting urban masses with their food, so that they might see the importance of agriculture… then, by all means do so.

  2. I’ve been to Growing Power in Milwaukee a couple of times, once with about fifty students, most of whom benefited more from that experience than from any given distribution requirement they’ve suffered through.

    What Will Allen is doing there is very impressive, not only in vegetable, egg, and fish production, not only in composting and vermiculture, but also in providing work and education for the people whose neighborhood he shares.

  3. A government program for food security will just do more to drive out the small, neighborly growers and producers, like the food safety program is doing.

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