Will Allen

January 5, 2014

January rolls in and it’s time for food icons month again. For those readers who picked up on the Thornapple blog after my discerning coverage of the ice storm in Lansing, the last three Januarys have been “food ethics icon” month at the Thornapple blog. All you have to do to become a food ethics icon is to attain some sort of notoriety in connection to food. The first time we did this in 2011, the icons were Norman Borlaug, Temple Grandin, Vandana Shiva, Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry. These are with the exception of Borlaug, who died in 2009, living people. They are people that, with the exception of Shiva, I have met, and in the case of Borlaug and Grandin, people that I know (or knew) reasonably well. More to the point, they are people that I had opinions about when I wrote the blogs, and what’s more, I was willing to express these opinions in the reasonably permanent form of the Thornapple blog. Go down to the archives and click on January 2011 if you want to see what I had to say.

I tried another “icons” month later that year, but decided that icons should really be a once a year thing. So we followed suit in 2012 with four more people I was willing to express opinions about, this time all figures who have passed into the foggy mists of food history. Last year we did “rock star farmers”. This year I thought about doing a month of “food villains”—not that all the previous icons of have been heroes, you know. I also thought about bagging the whole idea. I mean, the Thornapple blog is (aside from almost always being posted on Sunday) not a paradigm of regularity and consistency. Just doing something different is really O.K. Unlike the last two years, when I spent a fair amount of December thinking about who the food icons were going to be, I haven’t given all that much effort to iconography of late. But as you have already discerned, that passing fancy went by the boards. We are, indeed, doing icons again in January of 2014. That idea about villains was not bad, however, so maybe we’ll do that one in 2015, if we are still riding this orb a year hence.

So if I’ve had a thought, it kind of goes back to the original set of icons from 2011. Who was noteworthy enough that they deserve a mention in the Thornapple blog? So that’s how we come around to Will Allen. Allen is definitely someone that it would be worthwhile for me to recognize, and, he is someone who my legions of readers might want to know about, if they don’t already. To the extent that I continue to maintain delusions of grandeur, I can fashion myself as pronouncing iconic status on the worthy and informing the reading public of their exploits and accomplishments. Except that I have absolutely nothing interesting to say about Will Allen. I can pass on the obvious. Will Allen runs Growing Power, a cluster of NGOs in Milwaukee. They are among the more successful urban agriculture/grass roots food system efforts out there. The package has been replicated in many places: an urban farm, nutrition activism, employment for marginalized people, engagement for youth, environmental sustainability through composting and recycling. Allen was on this bandwagon early, and as far as I can tell from a distance, he deserves a lot of credit for his leadership and management ability.

I “met” Allen when he spoke at the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society meeting in 2010. The quotes mean that I heard his talk—a rambling stream of consciousness recital stimulated by a seemingly random collection of photographs from Growing Power—and I stood around in a group of about eight people who were talking to him. I got the impression he doesn’t especially like to travel. There may be a design behind the unprepared speaking style: “Leave me alone. I’ve got enough to do already in Milwaukee.” But I would be just making that up.

Allen has built his operation on grants from U.S. foundations.  This is not a knock on him. More power to Growing Power and to the foundations that have supported it. There is a food ethics point somewhere in observing that pulling this package off  may not be so easy for everyone. You’ll learn more about Allen by googling him than you will by reading the Thornapple blog.

So maybe you should do that?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University