Listening to Food Fighters Will Allen and Michael Pollan

Listening to Food Fighters Will Allen and Michael Pollan
Will Allen (left) and Michael Pollan discussed food systems with Jean Feraca in Milwaukee this fall.

It was hard to get past the initial incongruity of Growing Power’s 2014 National-International Urban & Small Farms Conference location at the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino in Milwaukee. We’d not been to the casino before. In fact, one of us had never been inside a casino, period. We walked past the off-track betting room, poker tables, an Italian restaurant and a gift shop on our way to the conference registration area, which was right next to a food court serving pizza, sausages and big cups of soda. Growing Power describes its mission as “Building a Fair Food Economy to Grow Healthy People.” Let’s just say it was odd.

The conversation we came to hear was anything but. It was between two giants in the food world, one literal and one figurative. Will Allen is the founder of Growing Power, the national nonprofit and land trust dedicated to providing equal access to healthy, high-quality, affordable food for people of all communities. He’s a MacArthur genius grant-winning, former professional basketball playing, African American son of southern share-croppers. Michael Pollan is a journalism professor with a science background, a best-selling author and one of the leading thinkers on where our food comes from and how food affects our lives. The moderator was poet, journalist and public radio host Jean Feraca, no slouch herself.

It was a rich exchange—good questions and better answers. Feraca nailed the introduction by setting Allen’s work up as moving from scarcity (asphalt-covered, inner-city food deserts) to abundance (vertical urban growing spaces with good soil and healthy foods), and Pollan’s work as moving from abundance (the glut of products of the modern American supermarket) to scarcity (the depleted, chemical-laden, rural farmland on which crops like corn and soy are over-grown to produce the pseudo-food in those supermarkets). 

Allen and Pollan see each other as partners in the “good food revaluation.” They share a desire to change the dynamic of communities, to improve health by better access to good food and to encourage diversity as a key component of more just food systems. Allen talked about how in the twenty years since he started Growing Power, public interest in his work has increased from “maybe fifteen” attendees at one of his talks to the 1,500 who showed up to hear him speak recently at Texas A&M University. 

The five hundred or so in attendance at this conference were treated to a preview of a new op-ed piece Pollan had just co-written for the next day’s Washington Post. In it, Pollan makes the case for a national food policy as the most important accomplishment to which President Obama could and should aspire during the last two years of his presidency. It is a comprehensive—one might say holistic—argument for investing resources in access to healthy, safe, afford-able food, sustainably produced by folks making a living wage, as the blueprint for addressing what Obama has identified as the four pillars of his second term: health care, climate change, immigration and economic inequality. It’s worth looking up.

We use the word holistic, because that’s the word Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini used at the biennial Terra Madre conference in October, when he made a similar argument in presenting a vision for the future of the Slow Food movement. At his regular news conference for non-Italian media, Petrini said young people in particular recognize that gastronomy is holistic, necessarily including politics and agriculture, living wages and chemical-free farming, freedom from hunger as a basic human right and the preservation of heritage varieties of produce and species of animals, and so forth. In other words, good, clean and fair, which is how Slow Food describes its mission. It was encouraging and optimistic to hear that conversation continued and even furthered in Milwaukee, even in a casino.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband.