"The only way to end the health care crisis is to grow healthy people, and the only way to do that is to grow healthy food."
URBANA — One of the nation's biggest proponents — and practitioners — of urban agriculture said locally grown food provides both health and economic benefits to communities.
Will Allen, founder and CEO of the Growing Power nonprofit group, said he has spent the last 20 years proving that urban agriculture works.
"My big message is, we need to look at food as our medicine," Allen said Tuesday on a visit to the University of Illinois campus. "The only way to end the health care crisis is to grow healthy people, and the only way to do that is to grow healthy food."
Plus, he said, urban agriculture is "an economic engine that can create thousands of jobs."
Allen bought the last farm within the Milwaukee city limits in 1993 and has since expanded to farms outside the city, on the south side of Madison, Wis., and in Chicago.
"This past year, we had 140 employees and about 150 different varieties of vegetables, fruit, edible flowers and fish," Allen said in an interview preceding a speech at the Illini Union. "Now we have about 25 acres of year-round production in greenhouses and 300 acres of outside production."
A former professional basketball player, the now 64-year-old Allen grew up on a small farm outside Washington, D.C.
"It was a very small farm that fits the model of what we do today," he said. "We're not looking at agriculture like you have here in Illinois with corn, soybeans and wheat."
After graduating from the University of Miami in 1971, he played professional basketball briefly in the old American Basketball Association and then played several years in Belgium, where he and a teammate tended a large backyard garden.
"That was the transformative moment when I realized I wanted to get back into farming," Allen said.
Allen eventually moved to Wisconsin, where his wife is from, and worked on off-farm jobs as a district manager for Kentucky Fried Chicken and later in sales and sales technology for Procter& Gamble.
But he balanced those jobs with operating a 100-acre farm in Oak Creek, just south of Milwaukee. He bought the Milwaukee farm in 1993 and founded the nonprofit group two years later.
"We have a diversified marketing scheme," Allen said of Growing Power. "We sell to (food supplier) Sysco on the wholesale side, to farm stands and farmers' markets and to a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program. We get food to everyone in the community regardless of their economic situation."
Today, several cities — including Newark, N.J., Minneapolis-St. Paul and Green Bay, Wis. — have approached him about consulting with them on building food systems, he said.
Besides the Wisconsin enterprises, Allen said, Growing Power has eight farms and a training center in Chicago.
The main challenges to urban agriculture, Allen said, are the difficulty of obtaining the long-term use of land and the lack of farmers.
"We have to develop farmers to do this type of farming," he said. "And instead of acres and hectares, we need to look at how much can be grown per square foot."
Getting people to work is not that big a problem, he said, noting "there are so many people out of work." He said Growing Power pays its employees a "living wage" that easily exceeds the minimum wage.
Allen was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 2008 and has been involved in the Clinton Global Initiative, adapting his projects for work overseas.
His lecture on campus was co-sponsored by WILL, the Student Sustainability Committee, Urbana's Market on the Square, the Woody Perennial Polyculture Research Site, Alpha Phi Omega and the Sustainable Agriculture Program.