I heard Will Allen speak this past week. Seven hundred people turned up at the Croatian Cultural Centre in Vancouver to be inspired by this rock star of the urban agriculture world. And inspired we were. Allen is a former pro basketball player who has returned to his farming roots. Through his organization, Growing Power, he’s producing enough vegetables, fish and livestock within the city of Milwaukee to feed 12,000 people. Growing Power originated in Milwaukee and Chicago, but their projects are now dotted around the world. The group trains low-income youth at their intense urban farming and greenhouse operations. In their aquaponics program, they also grow fish, Tilapia and Yellow Perch, in tanks in the greenhouses. The system is a closed loop, meaning water is recycled and the fish waste products are used to fertilize crops.
While he was in town, Allen attended a number of small sessions with various local groups. Lucky for me, I was invited to a food hub discussion. Organizers also toured Allen around to some of our thriving urban agriculture ventures. One of them was the SOLEfood farm. The urban farm provides training, employment and a beautiful, health-giving garden for residents of Vancouver’s beleaguered downtown eastside. The locally grown food is sold to restaurants and at farmers markets, any surplus is shared with community organizations helping to improve neighbourhood food security. The inner city farm is under the umbrella of a registered charity called United We Can, a bottle and can recycling depot created for binners (or dumpster divers) by Ken Lyotier, a former binner himself.
Social enterprises like SOLEfood and Growing Power employ people with barriers and provide them with healthy food. These innovative models of community economic development help revitalize poor neighbourhoods and improve the quality of life there.