Friday, March 1, 2013

Education of a Farmer: Welcome to Growing Power

Growing kale in February. In Milwaukee. Did I mention that it was 7 degrees there last weekend?
Why is it that city planning accounts for water sources, but not food? Car parking, but not bikes? Places to drive your car but not to walk? Why is there pick up for trash, but not compost? How can be have better, healthier, safer, more sustainable communities if we do not build them to be so?

I recently completed my second weekend of Commercial Urban Agriculture training at Growing Power, an urban farm network in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. What is a dietitian doing at farm school? Good question.

I have been working as a dietitian (RD) for a few years now. The traditional RD job is in a hospital setting - working to manage care in an acute setting and to help patients get ready to go home. This is important work, but it isn't the best fit for me: why not try to prevent so many folks from coming to the hospital in the first place?

I have also worked for WIC: a government food subsidy program that provides vouchers to purchase food and formula for mamas and their kiddos up to age five. 1 in 2 babies in this country are on WIC at some point in their childhood. Unlike food stamps, you cannot buy just anything, you have to buy specific healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, eggs and beans. I think that this is a great idea: there is no reason that tax dollars should be buying chips and soda.

Chicks in the City: Milk crates as laying boxes.

Though WIC has been around since the 1960's, the fruit and vegetable portion of the vouchers has only been around for a few years. It is about stinking time! I can recommend that folks eat fruits and vegetables until the cows come home, but if the client or patient have a very limited food budget or live in an area surrounded by fast food and liquor stores, the chances of the fork meeting broccoli is slim.

Goats: all on three acres
Rather than crisis managements - simply putting out the various fires - how is a dietitian to be part of the solution? 

Enter urban ag.

We all know the adage about a man and a fish - teaching is better than spoon feeding. And while I'm not advocating for the dissolution of WIC and other government programs - I think they're an important safety net - I think that we can aim higher. How can we build better communities? At Growing Power, you would be hard pressed to find a more diverse group of folks.. We have students from across the country and abroad - folks living in cities and in the country, people who have grown up knowing hunger and those who have only heard about it. Our career paths are varied, and many of us, at all ages, joke that we're just now figuring out what we "want to be when we grow up".  The common denominator though is food: everyone there is passionate and wildly optimistic about wholesome, nourishing food in every community. Food justice for all.
Growing mushrooms in a pallet
Where is this training and unconventional career path leading, exactly? I don't know quite yet. There are remarkably few examples of what my daydreaming entails - hospitals with their own farms where patients can have calming visits with animals, schools that include class time in the garden, prisons providing horticulture job training to help prevent re-incarceration, physical therapy in nursing homes that focus on shelling peas and weeding lettuce, growing community and soil instead of violence and apathy. But, I remain hopeful. It feels like a big problem to be tackling - something akin to putting "solve world peace" on the to-do list next to "buy milk" - but the truth is, you have to start somewhere, you have to do something.

Ispriring examples:
  • The Farm at Antioch College: small college in Ohio growing most of their own food
  • St. Joseph Mercy Health System: Dietitian Lisa McDowell dug in and got the farm started on her hospital campus and has blossomed to include two hoop houses and a farmers market. 

Reader poll: Are you planning to grow something this year? Have you been pouring over seed catalogs too? If you've never grown anything, this is a great year to start. Go get that tomato plant!

If you're wondering if you could qualify for WIC benefits, please click here.

Will Allen is the founder of growing power and his new book The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities is a good great - I'd recommend grabbing a copy.


  1. I really enjoyed this post. I'm seriously thinking about growing tomatoes or herbs on my patio!

    1. Oh you should! Just do it - you won't regret it!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


Print this!