SHEPHERDSTOWN – Years before Will Allen won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” or inspired audiences nationwide in the documentary “Fresh,” he talked with Shepherdstown native Charles Wilson, who was writing a magazine story on the then-new trend of setting up farms inside decaying cities.
“Back then I didn’t feel very hopeful about the urban agriculture movement – there were a few scattered projects but they were struggling for resources,” explains Wilson, a researcher with the New York Times Magazine who has written for Preservation magazine, the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist and other publications.
As he put together the article, Wilson found himself admiring Allen, who’d found success as a pro basketball player and business exec with Proctor & Gamble before turning to farming in mid-life.
Allen had grown up on a farm in the 1950s in the then-bucolic Washington suburbs of Rockville, Md., with zero interest in following his parents into agriculture, Wilson said. Nonetheless, growing food in the inner-city and planting seeds of hope in young people had become Allen’s biggest-ever passion.
“He was hosting events, teaching people, involving kids from the local public housing project – very inspiring stuff,” Wilson said in a phone interview from his office at the New York Times. “His work ended up being a small part of the broader story on urban agriculture but I remember thinking that he was such a remarkable person.”
Then just over two years ago, as Allen sought to begin a book that would chronicle his life story and spotlight his efforts to make healthy, fresh foods available inside “food deserts” where convenience stores far outnumbered farmers markets or supermarket produce sections, he re-connected with Wilson and suggested he serve as his co-author.
This weekend, Wilson returns to his hometown for a talk and book signing at Four Seasons Books. His discussion of the pair’s just-released collaboration, “The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities,” begins at 1 p.m. Saturday at the store at 116 W. German St. in Shepherdstown.
The free lecture will be followed by a reception with refreshments from the popular Shepherdstown whole-foods café, Mellow Moods.
It’s the first such event in Shepherdstown for Wilson, who holds degrees from the University of Virginia and Yale. He says he grew up enjoying the cozy surroundings of Four Seasons and that such independent bookstores are important to communities in much the same way as farmers markets.
“I’ve always loved Four Seasons,” Wilson said. “Independent bookstores do so much to create that sense of community. It’s wonderful to have a place like that where people can come and feel comfortable and connect with others in the community. Anytime that I can support that kind of local, independent business, I want to.”
Wilson has written extensively about food issues, including the No. 1 New York Times bestseller “Chew On This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food,” the children’s book he co-wrote in 2007 with Eric Schlosser.
But getting the dirt on the business of farming? For Wilson, that meant starting from scratch. “I didn’t know anything about the work of farming,” he said. “To learn just a small portion of that life took several months. Will’s a real doer so the biggest opportunity for me to hear his stories would be when I’d ride along with him in his truck as he went from one farm to another. I kept my recorder with me and I’d follow him around while he was working and get him to tell me his stories.”
Wilson, 63, had learned to farm from his parents, who’d worked as sharecroppers in their native South Carolina.
“Both Will and I thought it was so important to explore the legacy of sharecropping,” Wilson said. “Like so many other African-American families, Will’s family had left the South. During the Great Depression, America saw so many African-Americans leaving behind farming. They just couldn’t survive doing that anymore. On the one hand, his parents taught him all about farming but it was a life he was very eager to leave. We both wanted to honestly confront that fact.
“Today, Will Allen is encouraging African-Americans to farm. He learned so much from his parents and that puts him in a unique position to speak to African-American young people about farming as a profession. We knew we didn’t want to ignore that part of the story.”
Allen has said: “I’ve been a basketball player, I’ve been a businessman, but the thing that makes me happiest is farming. I realized that people didn’t have access to healthy food, and I thought I could bring farms into the city.”
Allen’s background puts a different focus on the issue, Wilson notes.
“So often, the fresh food movement is perceived as elitist, something aimed primarily at gourmands, those who can patronize the finest restaurants,” Wilson said. “But for Will, this is rebranded as a social justice issue. It’s the people in the inner cities who suffer the most when affordable, fresh food isn’t available. It’s about putting a healthy diet within reach of everyone.”
Wilson is eager to see access to organic, fresh foods not as frou-frou, but as a basic need.
“That’s something that I felt like was a danger for this movement – being perceived as something only for society’s elite means the discussion is headed the wrong way. With Will’s perspective, I see that as a way to steer the conversation onto the right path.”
Want to go?
What: The Good Food Revolution book signing
When: 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Four Seasons Books, 116 W. German St., Shepherdstown
To know more: Call the bookstore at 304-876-3486 or go to www.fourseasonsbooks.com