Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Genius is All Around

Whenever I was running out of money in graduate school I’d throw a dinner party. It wasn’t something conscious, it would just happen. These were not small and intimate, but for 8 or more people. They were multi-course meals and I would cook for hours prior to my guests arriving. And they would be fabulous dinner parties, including such menus as homemade vegetable tempura with four flavored green beans or handmade pumpkin ravioli with a balsamic cream sauce. I even made bread and dessert and let my guests provide the libations. Looking back, I think I understand my actions in two ways; one, I refused to let a lack of money dictate my happiness and two, it was a challenge to see if I could make a sumptuous meal for many on less than $15, mostly using what was in the pantry. Needless to say I have a fairly well stocked pantry and the meals were vegetarian, but the meals were gorgeous, and even the carnivores coveted return invitations.

So just as Wall Street is in shambles and business credit is non-existent I keep dreaming up new business ventures. One after another they keep tumbling out of my head, like clowns coming out of a cannon. They’re full grown, with marketing and business plans in hand. Their painted faces keep popping up in front of me saying, “Pick me! Pick me!” And while they’re interesting and fun to play with, I fear they’re a bit outlandish.

And just when I’ve dismissed them as too niche oriented or something that only I and a very select group of people would be interested in, I read an article in the New York Times about an urban, organic, black farmer, Will Allen, who just won a “genius” award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which is – no joke – a gift of $500,000 ($100,000 a year for five years) to people who are considered genius in their field. They receive the money for simply being who they are. No grant writing, no application, no letters of recommendation. Just, hello, we think you’re doing amazing things, here’s half a million dollars, do whatever you want to do with it. Really.

So it turns out Will Allen founded and runs Green Power, which is one of these amazing nonprofits that has quietly been revolutionalizing farming, urban renewal, and sustainable food production. Green Power is located in one of the most economically distressed parts of Milwaukee, an area of town that doesn’t have real grocery stores, what people in the food movement refer to as urban “food deserts,” where the only access to food is corner grocery stories filled with beer, cigarettes and processed foods.

Green Power has been around for 16 years and now has a staff of about three dozen full-time workers and 2,000 residents pitching in as volunteers. They grow about $500,000 worth of affordable produce, meat and fish in several locations across the city and on 40 acres in a nearby town. This project is very similar to an organization here in Oakland, the People’s Grocery, which was founded five years ago to create a real grocery store in a similar “food desert” neighborhood. Like Green Power, the People’s Grocery has gardens and a few acres of farmland to raise its own produce to make available to the lowest income people.

But what I find so amazing is that Will Allen started this in 1994!! I didn’t even know the word organic in 1994! I didn’t even hear about such a thing as organic farming until 1996. I am in awe of both the foresight to create such a project and the ability to sustain and grow it to its present capacity. As the creation of the People’s Grocery demonstrates, the impetus to grow and provide healthy, sustainably grown food even in the urban food desert is not an isolated desire. This is a prime example of how greatness can come from poor conditions.

I am so thrilled that my desire, as expressed in yesterday’s blog post, to find the good that can come from scarce times manifested this wonderful example of ingenuity and social good. So let this be the first of many to inspire all to build a better future.

(link to the article)

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