Will Allen is 65 years old, just like me. He was born into very different circumstances. When I read this book, I had to keep reminding myself that his childhood and youth did not take place “far away and long ago”. We were separated by maybe 500 miles in distance, and no time at all. But I didn’t “meet” him until I read this book.
Will Allen was born in Maryland, into a poor African American family from South Carolina. His parents were hard working and incredibly self-reliant. Allen credits his highly athletic physique to a childhood of hard work and healthy food. He discovered basketball early in his teens and used it as his path away from poverty. I’m familiar with the “Great Migration” of African Americans from the South to northern cities, and even with some of the reverse migration that followed. (There’s a demographer in the family. Hi, JBC!) But it never occurred to me to analyze it from the viewpoint of food and nutrition! Will Allen writes about this with great clarity.
Allen’s depiction of pre-Migration families eating healthy homegrown food is somewhat at odds with tales told by my father-in-law, a North Carolina university physician whose father practiced rural medicine before him. His descriptions of country life among the poor included appallingly bad health and severe malnutrition. Maybe life in the coastal plain of North Carolina was harder than in South Carolina or Virginia.
But there’s no arguing with Allen’s assertion that, once at their urban destinations, African Americans and other poor people faced (and continue to face) many barriers to healthy eating. For three decades, I’ve watched Atlantic City struggle to retain a single supermarket. If you don’t have a car, buying a week’s worth of food at a time isn’t going to happen, and if you are working two jobs, how much can you cook? Cheap, starchy food isn’t very satisfying, so obesity sometimes catches up with you.
Will Allen is one very creative farmer! I’ve farmed a little, with an oddball list of shaky successes – blackberries to die for, okra, basil, yard-long Chinese beans. But I’ve also been frequently defeated (by deer, weather, etc.), and have decided to leave agriculture to my more talented and hardworking neighbors. Allen preaches patience and plainly has learned, over time, how to make barren, desolate areas productive. Allen branched out beyond vegetables to raising chickens and even fish.
Along the way, he has involved schools and neighborhood centers and cooperatives. He has figured out how to go vertical, crowding multiple crops into small areas. Presently, he works both on crops/projects that are economically viable and ones that require subsidies. He identifies ENERGY as a major barrier to urban agriculture in his city of Milwaukee.
I love Allen’s vision of bringing food closer to people and people closer to food. I know people who are working along the same lines in Atlantic City and even Camden, the saddest city I know. I wish them all the greatest possible success.