Growing Power Madison seeking a more sustainable and just food system

Early on a Saturday morning, workshop participants finished their locally-grown breakfast and gathered to hear Growing Power CEO Will Allen introduce the day’s program.

The day’s workshops were designed to teach participants the basics of cultivating their own produce, and in turn improve their relationship with food. The effect of this on individuals and communities, he believes is transformative.

Allen’s organization, Growing Power, is a nonprofit that trains community stakeholders in the art of growing and selling food in urban environments. Allen says gaining these skills gives participants the opportunity to improve their own health and the health of their community.

“The mission is to support community food systems, locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally, and to do it in a way...that involves social justice, food justice, environmental justice,” Allen said.

Allen believes that growing and eating healthy food with other people is the foundation of a strong community. Allen told the group his hope is that some of them leave this workshop wanting to go into the urban farming business.

“It might not happen right away, but we hope we can inspire you to get involved in the food system,” Allen said.

Allen says urban growing is the future of agriculture. He believes industrial agriculture is unsustainable, and that for communities to achieve food security in the future they will need to focus on cultivating food at the local level. Allen said local food systems are something Americans have forgotten in the past 100 years.

“Looking back, generations ago, we were all connected to the farm, and I think what happened is we had a generational gap where people stopped passing on to the next generation: how to grow food and how to eat healthy...what we’re trying to do now is go back, and fill those generational gaps,” Allen said.

Training young people to cultivate food and share their knowledge with their community is Allen’s first priority for Growing Power.

“It will be these entrepreneurs, especially young entrepreneurs...that are gonna change the dynamics of our communities,” Allen said.

Growing Power’s work in Madison is housed within the Resilience Research Center, along with Badger Rock Middle School and the Resilience Neighborhood Center. It maintains a farm where it grows various crops. This location also helps Growing Power reach a variety of groups on Madison’s south side.

“It’s a project we’re really proud to be a part of,” Growing Power Evaluation & Outreach Coordinator Martin Bailkey said.

Four sessions were offered at the workshop, including composting and vermiculture, project planning, mycoscaping, and year-round greenhouse production.

Growing Power Madison Farming Manager Robert Pierce said that these workshops were selected because they teach participants the basics of growing healthy food at home.

“These are the essentials for something that you can do at home and do pretty quick, and make something really healthy out of it,” Pierce said.

When he isn’t putting on workshops, Pierce spends his time tending Growing Power Madison’s many crops.

Slow Food UW and the Odyssey Project, which provides adults with economic barriers to college the opportunity to earn their bachelor’s degree, partnered with Growing Power to make the event a success.

Many of the 15 workshop participants were current or former Odyssey Project students. Odyssey Project has already teamed up with Slow Food UW to host monthly dinners for Odyssey Project participants. The dinners are meant to spur further collaboration between Odyssey Project students and alumni and encourage discussions about food justice.

Growing Power and Odyssey Project are beginning a new collaboration this year that gives Odyssey Program students and alumni the opportunity to grow food in their very own garden at the Resilience Research Center. This workshop was the first step towards creating the Odyssey garden.

Sherri Bester, an Odyssey Program graduate, signed up for the workshop to learn the technicalities of farming. She wants to share the food she grows in her garden with her Slow Food, Odyssey and blood families. Bester said she is grateful for the academic and health knowledge she has learned through these programs, which helped her and her husband each lose about 200 pounds in the last five years. Now she is eager to share this transformational knowledge with others.

“I’m just excited to learn all that, but then putting it to action is more powerful to me,” Bester said.

Stories like Bester’s are the type of transformation Allen hopes Growing Power can have for communities across the country. He says that the food system is the root of community ties, and how we relate to food says a lot about how we relate to each other.

“Everybody’s involved in the food system, whether you want to be or not, if want to survive you gotta eat food. And my hope is that you eat good food, not just food,” Allen said.