The 1200 square-foot garden that Michelle Obama planted on the White House's South Lawn didn't only inspire millions of Americans to invest in seed packets and tomato starts: Food activist Will Allen credits the project with reducing the stigma many people of color associate with agriculture.
"I think everyone knows farming is hard, but if you were subjected to forced labor and being cheated out of your money and the USDA situation, those are situations people don't want to pass on," says Allen, who's speaking tonight at the Northwest African American Museum.
Allen, a former basketball player, in 1993 retired from Procter & Gamble's corporate marketing department to purchase a two-acre plot in Milwaukee. He's since won a MacArthur grant for his work as an urban farming advocate; his new book, The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities, argues that agricultural activities can restore and elevate the health and dignity of inner-city communities. He envisions low-income neighborhoods repopulated with gardens; greenhouses; cooperative cafes; organic composting operations; and aquaculture farms, perhaps housed in formerly abandoned warehouses - and he fully expects to see his dream realized.
"This movement is on fire," Allen says. "We're finding a great desire for people to get involved."
When Allen started farming, he was frequently asked why he'd trade a desk job for dirt.
"Fifteen years ago, people were ashamed to say they were growing food," Allen says. "People would ask me ' why are you doing slave work?'"
Like many African-Americans of his generation, Allen is the son of a Southerner who moved north as soon as the law and his finances allowed it. "He dropped his plow and mule in the 1930s," Allen says. Unusually, though, Allen's father didn't reject farming when he relocated to the Washington D.C. area. He taught his children how to plant and tend a garden.
"As people migrated north, education was the thing that people talked about, rather than the values that came from farming," Allen says.
According to Allen, the number of African-American farmers nationwide has dwindled from 100,000 to 18,000 over the past half-century. With far fewer African Americans farming, a trove of agricultural memories and practices are now at risk of disappearing, Allen says. And the situation isn't unique to the African-American community: Many Asian and Hispanic immigrants don't want farm work to be their children's inheritance.
"Who would want to pass on something that seemingly didn't benefit their lives?," Allen asks.
Yet Allen says the Obamas' support of backyard gardening and the obesity crisis have persuaded many city dwellers to reconsider their stance on farming.
"With the First Lady, people really admire her, and they see the First Family being so healthy," Allen says. "Now they look at gardens as an asset to the community."
Allen's presentation at the Northwest African American Museum starts at 7 p.m. The event is free.