The Good Food Revolution is the best book I’ve read in a long time. My interest in local and urban agriculture drew me to the book; the intimate stories of individuals and communities that frame that meta-narrative drew me into it. The book arrived on Wednesday. Despite an excessively busy schedule, I had completed it by early Saturday morning, often forgoing much-needed sleep because I simply could not put it down.
The rich and engaging stories of individuals and their relationships to one another through family, community, and politics are told through the lenses of race, economics, and, of course, agriculture, all woven together by Will Allen in a style that is at once eloquent and folksy; comprehensive and intimate. Through engaging vignettes, Will Allen’s The Good Food Revolution provides glimpses into the history of this nation, with particular emphasis on the different experiences of people of different races. The story is deeply personal, yet told in a way that we can all feel like we are a part of it and of the future envisioned by Will Allen.
Will Allen shares stories of past and present racial inequality in a tone that is likely to draw people in, rather than make people feel either guilty or entitled. Unlike the judgmental and accusatory tone often found in such accounts, Mr. Allen’s gentle and understanding tone allows him to capture the extreme difficulties faced by people of color without alienating others. By handling even the most shameful aspects of our nation’s history with grace and tact, Mr. Allen was able to draw me into the stories without feeling like a would-be savior or presumed culprit for our divided history. Rather, I felt like an invited guest to our shared future.
Mr. Allen tells the story of environmental damage wrought by modern agricultural practices in much the same tone, with understanding towards those who are practicing out of ignorance – even admitting some of his own less-than-best practices over the years. This approach is far more likely to result in converts to his way of thinking than the acerbic, arrogant, and accusatory tone that often seem to underlie discussions of both agriculture and race these days.
Mr. Allen, who describes himself as a muscular 6’7″, seems to have an awareness of the effectiveness of this approach:
I also recognized there was a power in being both huge and polite; I invoked fear in people and allayed it at the same time. (p. 69).
By approaching the topic in this way, my eyes were opened to things I wasn’t fully aware of before and I was very receptive to hearing it from him. For example, I’m a big proponent of the local food movement and of organic and sustainable agricultural practices. I believe that much of our public policy favors BigAg at the expense of the little guy. Mr. Allen showed me that many of those “little guys” are black farmers:
For black farmers in the twentieth century who outlasted the upheaval of the Great Migration [northward], there were more subtle forces that drove them off their land. In 1982, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report called ‘The Decline of Black Farming in America’ that attempted to understand why black farmers were leaving the profession at a rate of two and a half times greater than that of whites. The committee found that one important reason was that black farmers were small farmers. . . . Almost all of the technological innovations that the United States government had subsidized over the previous decades, the authors acknowledged, were geared toward increasing the productivity of large farms — and not to making small farms sustainable.
There’s a lot packed into that quote, including public policy (subsidies), the dangers of over-efficiency in farming, and the racial disparities in loss of farming opportunities. Most importantly, it speaks to our united interest in supporting small, local farmers. Through this and similar sentiments scattered throughout the book, I discovered an unanticipated affinity with people of color, coming to the recognition that they feel even more acutely than others the effects of policies and procedures that are not helpful or sustainable for any of us. It educated me about the challenges facing urban farmers without shaming me for my prior ignorance.
This is also reflected in Mr. Allen’s description of his intentional method of helping young people want to eat real food – not through lecturing them, but by allowing them to be part of the experience. In describing the findings of a study about young people and nutritional habits, Mr. Allen relates:
The researchers found no significant difference a year later in the vegetable and fruit consumption of children without nutrition education and those who received nutrition classes. The students who received hands-on training in a garden, however, increased their fruit and vegetable intake by more than two servings a day. My own experience tells me that if we can expose young people more often to fresh, delicious food – and create positive emotions around those experiences – that we increase the chances that they will adopt more fresh food into their diet as they begin to make independent food choices later in life. (p. 161)
The Good Food Revolution frequently uses gardening and agriculture as a metaphor for life:
My father taught me that the fate of a seed can be predicted by the health of the soil where it takes root. This is true of summer crops. It can be true, in another sense, of people. We all need a healthy environment and a community that lets us fulfill our potential. (p.63)
He later described vermiposting in similar terms:
The worms also made me reflect again on what it took to improve the lives of people. You couldn’t place folks in the middle of a blighted neighborhood — without a strong family unit and without easy access to healthy food — and expect them to thrive. If you could create an environment in which people felt secure and healthy, though, you could provide the possibility of a better life.
A counter-balance to this is the story of Karen Parker, who overcame significant obstacles to thrive in the urban agriculture environment. He summed up her experience using another metaphor:
Sometimes on the sidewalks of Milwaukee, there will be a flower or a tall week sticking defiantly out of the tiniest crack in the concrete. I realize that human lives can be like that. People find a way to persist even when they are provided the narrowest opportunity.
Wisdom about the value of patience and adversity, among other things, are also woven throughout the book. In a chapter introduction entitled “Grit,” Will compares humans to worms, which need to have *just the right amount* of hard material in their diet in order to break down compost, “Human beings need the right amount of grit: not too much, but not too little, either.” (p. 207)
In addition to the broader philosophical themes, the book offers plenty of sound, practical advice for the would-be gardener, non-profit organization, or even small business start-up. For the gardener, there is specific information about the ratio of elements needed for good compost, specific measurements of Growing Power’s aquaponics equipment, and descriptions of tehniques for planting, cultivating, and even preparing produce.
For the non-profit or for-profit business, the book includes a very transparent look at the thought processes that underlie the successes – and failures – that brought both Will Allen and Growing Power to where they are today. The book describes various challenges faced by Mr. Allen and the organization, and describes the problem-solving techniques used to over come them. One example is the description of how he and a number of other farmers at a local farmers market decided to organize themselves into a co-op after facing the prospect of being shut down due to city budget constraints.
The practical advice and philosophical themes work together to inspire the reader to live a fulfilling life by harnessing her unique gifts, talents, experiences, and passions into something meaningful. Mr. Allen doesn’t sugar-coat the value or necessity of hard work and perseverance – it is detailed on every page. But, he also highlights the rewards that can come from working hard at a meaningful endeavor.
The book covers a lot of ground and tells the story of many people, but it is not the least bit disjointed. In fact, I would say that the integrated way the book was put together with diverse people, circumstances, and events, is a reflection of the type of community envisioned within its pages.
- The Real Food Lawyer