Wednesday, April 20, 2011

UDC: Urban Sustainability Action Summit, "Food: Sovereignty, Security and Justice"

Will Allen of Growing Power
On April 16, 2011 I attended the University of the District of Columbia Urban Sustainability Summit, "Food: Sovereignty, Security and Justice". As far of actual attendance to the events I was there for breakfast socializing and the opening speeches by Iveracottis Short, Barbara Jumper, Gloria Wyche-Moore, and Will Allen.

I had never been to UDC before and had no idea that they had a College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences. I was excited to learn of their major Green work around campus to create a sustainable and efficient future. This was their "First Annual" Summit so I look forward to see what they do in the future.

Will Allen is a man I highly respect. I was first introduced to Mr. Allen in Fresh the Movie where we see what he has created since his first plot the north side of Milwaukee on just 2 acres. He bought the last remaining farm in Milwaukee in 1993. Next door was a military site with nuclear weapons. He grew up right outside of DC on the Rockville/Bethesda line when it was farms. He grew up a farmer. He played basketball in high school, college, and was drafted by the NBA. He retired from basketball when he was 28 and moved to his wife's home town.

If there are two things you hear from Mr. Allen when he speaks it is passion and honesty. He gets it. He sees the big picture. He understands that we need the Urban farms to feed the food deserts. He understands the steps that need to happen in order to "feed the world" and the steps to save our planet, our survival as a species. Our food system is broken. We need to work together and build relationships and partnerships. We need the Walmart, Sysco, medical field, universities, politicos all at the same table working together. We have a responsibility. Mr. Allen shared that the mayor of Cleveland is setting up Ag Zones. Did you know that most cities have less than 1% of locally grown food available to them? If we make that 10% in any ONE city like Cleveland that would mean a billion dollars in local jobs and revenue, even more for cities like New York and DC. That 10% would make jobs for farmers, renewable energy, aquaponics, aqua culturalists, architects, truck drivers, etc. In Milwaukee Mr. Allen is helping build a 5 story vertical farm, the first in the world. We have hundreds of vacant building around our country, what if we used that land, those buildings to create local food! But Mr. Allen is careful to warn "We can't just have excitement, we need Action! And it can't wait." A 3 acre farm can feed 10,000 people. Have you looked at the vacant rooftop space all over our cities? Or the empty buildings? The biggest challenge is inspiring people.

Our current food system has destroyed our soil. It is 50% less fertile than it was in 1950. And after our food is picked it looses its nutrients in just a day- day and a half. The UN recently came out and said that industrial farming cannot feed the world. We need to shift and focus on local food systems world wide. We must grow new soil from all our waste, we must compost, we must find ways to use the rooftops, concrete, vacant buildings, wherever we can.

In 18 years of Will Allen's urban farming he has grown to 100 acres in Milwaukee, has 4 farms in Chicago, is continuing to grow, and has NEVER laid anyone off. He started his early years just making soil with 30 lbs of worms now he has over 5,000 lbs of worms. He started his aquaponics system with 3 barrels. It is time to make the difference. It is time to stand up for our food system.

I spent the rest of the day of the Summit helping out on the Farm to Family bus. It was fantastic. Suzi and Mark Lilly are incredible people. There are people that come into your life that you know you will never forget, Suzi is that person. She has such a wonderful warmth and caring nature about her. She makes you feel as though you are the most important person in the (bus) as she shares the stories of where the foods come from, each as precious and magical as the next. You have to see the bus, but the real perfection comes through Suzi and Mark. I was originally introduced to Farm to Family at the reception for Fresh the Movie after having a screening for Congress. The bus was parked outside Poste Moderne Brasserie and you could see it from down the block.

Mark and Suzi created a traveling farmers' market. There are up to 30 farms and artisan food makers loaded up on the bus and in their market in peak season. The Farm to Family Bus has it all- milk, butter, vegetables, fruits, honey, meats (even from that famous farmer from Polyface Farm), plants, bbq sauces, body pampering, snacks for you and for the dog, even beautiful Amish made rocking chairs, the list goes on. And it all comes from within 150 miles radius of Richmond, VA. I am not sure when they sleep exactly, but I hope they actually get to sit back and see their very awesome contribution to the food movement. What is really fun is following the bus on facebook and watching the updates of the food coming in straight from the farm and the bus is currently located so you can go stock up. It's amazing and has more variety than my 3 farmers' markets that I go to weekly.

I was there to help cover the bus while Mark and Suzi were at the Sustainability Summit to have a workshop on Real Food Security. I found being on the bus to be great as people would come in and share their views, opinions, stories of food and awe of the bus. The bus just puts you in a good mood and you get cozy with each other real quick. I spoke with people who worked for the USDA and the FDA, a girl who just started at GWU and brought her bees to college with her and installed them on top of her building, a man who is on the board at UDC but doesn't think Urban farming is realistic- "just look at all the concrete" and refused to go into the Summit and listen to anything different, a woman who wants to buy organic from Chile instead of local because it's "organic", and one woman who was so enthused she brought more and more people to enjoy the bus. It was a wonderful day of chatting with people who have opinions, for and against my own, and it's always interesting to hear. I love every time I can talk to people with passion for real food and our food system.

Mark and Suzi found a creative, fun, and effective way to help get local foods to people who wouldn't regularly have them available. They were not only excited about changing the food system they took action! I can't wait to see more creative ideas popping up around the nation and the world. And I am still looking for mine.

I did have to run before Mr. Allen got on the bus to go pick up my son from my husband's restaurant. But I had a day that will stay with me for a long time.


  1. This is so awesome. I never heard about that bus, nor did I know much about Will Allen, but with this informative blog, I definitely want to know even more!