Chefs, community activists, farmers and food enthusiasts alike gathered yesterday at Gaining Ground on the Southside to talk shop with visiting urban farmer Will Allen.

Allen-who heads up the farm Growing Power outside of Milwaukee, Wis., co-authored the book “The Good Food Revolution” and is a MacArthur Fellow-was in town to speak at the Roland Hayes Concert Hall in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Fine Arts Center as part of the Hunter Lecture Series.

He fit the panel discussion at Gaining Ground into a packed two-day schedule of spots in and around the Chattanooga area, including Hixson and Howard high schools, Crabtree Farms, Fair Share, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy and the Chattanooga Mobile Market.

Jeff Pfitzer, director of Gaining Ground; Joel Houser, executive director of Crabtree Farms; Joel Tippins, director of Fair Share; and John Bilderback, director of Grow Healthy Together Chattanooga at the Hamilton County Health Department; joined Allen on the panel.

Over a lunch of black bean empanadas and sesame seed-covered spring rolls, the group discussed community gardens, food stamps, food deserts, and how to move food and urban farming forward in Chattanooga.

“It’s about changing the dynamics of our communities,” Allen said. “Food is the most important thing in life, whether or not we want to acknowledge that.”

On the food scene
Efforts in Chattanooga as represented on the panel include the more established urban farms like Crabtree Farms, which focuses on education as well as crop production, and the newer kids on the block like Fair Share, a nonprofit farm setting up shop in a Main Street parking lot.

Community- and government-based programs range from Gaining Ground, which targets food issues from economic, financial and social angles, to the health department’s programs, which target obesity and food access.

In directing those efforts in the right direction, Allen touched briefly on the highlights of his visit with particular attention to the caliber of questions he was asked at the schools. 

“Now is the time to scale up your production,” he said. “Nationally, only 2 percent of our food is organic. It is a right to eat healthy and have access to healthy food.”

He also noted that though the South might have come around to urban and organic farming slower than other regions in the country, the area is now generating more activity. 

Addressing questions of access to food, Allen stressed the importance of partnerships like the ones Growing Power formed with corner stores in low-income areas. He and colleagues would stock the shops with produce and ensure that the inventory remained fresh, therefore enticing, to consumers; they would swap almost-gone fruits and vegetables with new produce soon after the first delivery.


Will Allen for the MacArthur Foundation

The exchange program entailed a 70-30 profit split, with Growing Power taking the larger share and allowing the corner stores to have a cushion while residents grew accustomed to the idea of buying produce in the neighborhood.

Further, Growing Power became GAP-good agricultural practices-certified so as to partner with Cisco Systems Inc. to get 250,000 pounds of carrots, among other vegetables and fruits, into public schools.

Allen also took to dispelling myths about the knowledge of and desire to be involved in the surrounding food movement.

Bilderback attested to his experiences working in south and east Chattanooga neighborhoods to build up a network of 30 community gardens. The striking majority of residents may be skeptical of urban farming at first, but, he explained, once they try, most are quickly able to find their green thumb.

“You can’t underestimate the community,” Bilderback said. “When you meet someone and shake a hand, there are very few permanent ‘nos.'”

Allen and Growing Power have seen additional success in getting the “politicos,” as he called them, on board, or rather, out of the way. He mentioned that the mayor of Milwaukee has often joked that the best thing his office did concerning the urban farm was step out of the way.

On that topic, Tippins brought up the recent legislative move in the Tennessee House and Senate-HB117/SB102-to lift the prohibition on selling produce grown in a community garden.

Funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, can currently be used to buy fruit-bearing plants and seeds to plant in a residential garden. 

Crabtree Farms and the Brainerd Farmers Market accept SNAP benefits, and the Wednesday Main Street market is working toward giving consumers the same purchasing power.

Allen advised the audience to remember that communities, once given the chance, can adapt.

Updated @ 10:59 p.m. on 2/28/13 to correct a misspelled name: It is Jeff Pfitzer, not Jeff Fitzer.