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Living in the Environment

A food desert is an urban area where people have little or no easy access to nutritious food without traveling long distances. In the United States, an estimated 23.5 million people, including 6.5 million children, live in such areas, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People living in these urban neighborhoods tend to rely on convenience stores and fast food restaurants that mainly offer high-calorie, highly processed foods that can lead to higher risks of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Will Allen (Figure 12-1), one of six children of a sharecropper, grew up on a farm in Maryland, but left the farming life for college and a professional basketball career, followed by a successful corporate marketing career. In 1993, Allen had decided to return to his roots, and he bought the last working farm within the city limits of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was to become a food oasis in a food desert.

On this small urban plot, Allen developed Growing Power, Inc., an ecologically based farm and a showcase for forms of agriculture that apply all three scientific principles of sustainability. It is powered partly by solar electric and solar hot water systems and makes use of several greenhouses to capture solar energy for growing food throughout the year. The farm produces an amazing diversity of crops—150 varieties of vegetables along with organic herbs and sunflowers. It also produces chickens, turkeys, goats, fish such as tilapia and perch, and honey- bees. And the farm’s nutrients are recycled in creative ways. For example, wastes from the farmed fish are used as nutrients to raise some of the crops.

The farm’s products are sold locally at Growing Power farm stands throughout the region and to various restaurants. Allen also worked with the city to establish the Farm-to-City Market Basket program through which people can sign up for weekly deliveries of organic produce at modest prices.

In addition, Growing Power runs an education program for school children who visit the farm to learn about where their food comes from. Allen also runs a training program for about 1,000 people every year who want to learn organic farming methods. In 2011, the farm partnered with the city of Milwaukee to create 150 new green jobs for unemployed, low-income workers, building greenhouses and growing food organically. Growing Power has expanded, locating another urban farm in a neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois, and setting up satellite training sites in five other states.

For his creative and energetic efforts, Allen has won several prestigious awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship. However, he is most proud of the fact that
 his urban farm helps to feed more than 10,000 people every year and puts people to work raising good food.

In this chapter we look at different ways to produce food, the environmental effects of food production, and how to produce food more sustainably.