2022 Leadership Winner Erika Allen
Co-founder and CEO of Operations, Urban Growers CollectiveRebecca Treon
June 03, 2022
The James Beard Foundation’s Leadership Awards spotlight the important and complex realms of sustainability, food justice, and public health. They raise awareness of these timely issues by celebrating the visionaries responsible for creating a healthier, safer, and more equitable and sustainable food system. Below, Rebecca Treon spoke with 2022 James Beard Leadership Award honoree Erika Allen about how she is using urban agriculture to invest in her community.
Growing up on a Wisconsin farm, Erika Allen wanted to get as far away from farming as she could. But in the end, it was her agrarian upbringing that made her an agent for change in the South Side of Chicago.
“I vowed I would never farm. Then, I had this epiphany and realized that very few people in my age group knew how to grow food. I realized there was a lot of opportunity to teach others about food sovereignty because everybody can grow food,” says Erika.
Following the footsteps of her father Will Allen—2011 James Beard Leadership Award winner and urban grower—Erika kickstarted a project to transform Chicago’s food deserts. In 2017, Erika, along with Laurell Sims, co-founded Urban Growers Collective, a Black- and women-led nonprofit farm whose mission is to build economic opportunities for BIPOC urban growers, mitigate food insecurity, and increase access to high quality, nutritious food that is affordable and culturally-affirming.
Looking to create more sustainable communities through renewable food cycles and renewable energy, Erika has another revolutionary project in the works: Green ERA. Located in the South Side of Chicago, the Auburn Gresham neighborhood campus will soon feature a farm, retail store and nursery, community education center, and most exciting of all, an anaerobic digestor that diverts millions of pounds of food waste from landfills and converts it into clean energy and rich compost. With a plan to open in 2022, the former industrial plant site turned state-of-the-art urban farm will spur economic development with green, closed-cycle food production.
“It’s an economic development engine for a Black community that’s been underinvested in,” says Erika. “We’re creating a closed-loop energy and food system that’s community operated and creates cash flow.”
On top of the boots-on-the-ground, grassroots economic and agricultural development Erika is involved in, she continues to push the envelope when it comes to equality, systemic racism, and exploitation.
“In 2022, we’re still talking about basic human rights like food access—things everyone should have,” says Erika. “We have to reckon with the structural reasons for these inequities. We can address everything if we’re all working together and supporting each other. We can move away from the competitive ethos and have a more cooperative future.”
Rebecca Treon is a Denver-based freelance food and travel writer whose work has taken her around the globe. Her work has appeared in publications like BBC Travel, Hemispheres, Huff Post, and Tasting Table. Follow her on Instagram at @RebeccaTreon.