UF convocation speaker: Pursue 'good food'
Published: Friday, August 22, 2014 at 2:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 22, 2014 at 8:12 p.m.
Eat Kale. Love Worms. Step out of your cocoon.
Those were some of the words of encouragement that urban farmer and food activist Will Allen imparted on the 6,400 or so incoming freshmen who on Friday filled the O'Connell Center.
Allen, founder of the nonprofit Growing Power foundation and author of "The Good Food Revolution: Growing Health Food, People and Communities," was the keynote speaker for the UF Class of 2018. All freshmen were assigned his book as their common reader.
Vice President for Student Affairs Dave Kratzer said the common reader is designed to stimulate discussion about contemporary global and community issues, and to give the freshman class a sense of community.
"Allen's timely story … speaks to the point of commitment to social justice," Kratzer said.
Allen, a former college and professional basketball player, left an executive position at Procter & Gamble in 1993 to buy an abandoned nursery in Milwaukee called Growing Power. Its focus is on transforming abandoned lots and buildings in inner-city neighborhoods where there are few grocery stores — called "food deserts" — into farms that feed the local communities.
He has received a Ford Foundation grant and a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" and turned that nursery into a nonprofit company of 100 employees with a satellite project in Chicago.
A former University of Miami student, Allen said he was pleased for the rare opportunity to address an arena full of Gators.
And then he got serious.
"The food system in this country is broken. Only 3 to 4 percent of our food is good food," he said. "We have to fix that."
Statistics show that the Class of 2018 is the first generation of Americans not predicted to live longer than their parents, who were most likely baby boomers like himself. "I don't believe that," he said, acknowledging the many students sitting in the Agricultural and Life Sciences section of the O'Connell Center. "I believe that you all can fix that."
Allen said it's the job of his generation to pass on its experience and what his peers have learned to the next generation. And it's the job of the students to remember where they came from, and the people they stand for back home who didn't get the opportunity to attend UF.
He told them to get out of their comfort zone, or their "cocoon," and to embrace diversity, to spend time getting to know new people outside of their own cultural background.
And, he said, give back to the community. "Look for the opportunity to give back. Hang out at a local nonprofit. Learn something about other people in the community where you live."
And search for good food. As a group. With friends.
He had a serious word or two for student-athletes in particular, telling them to study hard, "learn a thing or two," and not put in three years and get out. "Not all of you are going to be professional athletes," he said, adding that he has seen too many athletic washouts on the streets.
"So get an education. Be leaders of the future."
Allen then gave a slide presentation — trying to get through 1,000-plus slides in a matter of minutes. High school students out of the juvenile justice system, now adults. Using composted bedding to transform asphalt lots into gardens. Flower beds planted on drug dealer street corners. "Growing soil" by diverting landfill waste into a composting operation that has produced 40 million pounds of compost. Putting thousands of worms to work to make nutrient-rich fertilizer sold and used throughout the country.
"Gotta love them worms," Allen said. "Our worms are our livestock."
He showed slides of the organization's aquaponics operation, a food system that combines raising fish with growing food. He talked about the dramatic loss of agricultural lands in the U.S., that California alone is losing half its farmland.
"We have to grow at the local level if we want to eat good food," he said.
Not many keynote speakers have exhorted an incoming freshman class to eat its greens, but Allen did.
"Eat kale," he said. "It is the up-and-coming crop in America."