Reading In Common Program

2018: The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities

About the Book 

The son of a sharecropper, Will Allen had no intention of ever becoming a farmer himself. But after years in professional basketball and as an executive for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Procter & Gamble, he cashed in his retirement fund for a two-acre plot just outside Milwaukee’s largest public housing project. The area was a food desert with only convenience stores and fast-food restaurants to serve the needs of locals. (Source: Penguin Random House).

The book, and Allen’s organization, Growing Power, helped spark nation-wide attention to the connections between land, food, and community. Allen sought to break down racial and economic barriers as well as between urban and rural communities. He worked to reshape the community from the ground up, providing jobs and healthy food for the community and fostering a deeper connection to the land. Thousands flocked to Growing Power to learn how to replicate urban farms in their own communities and Allen won a MacArthur Genius Award in 2008 for his work. Yet, in November 2017, the organization declared bankruptcy. Allen resigned and Growing Powers closed its Milwaukee headquarters, an ignoble end to what many hailed as a transformative urban food movement. 

The book highlights many important themes. Perhaps most significantly, it calls our attention to the topic of the 2018 Nobel Conference, Living Soil: A Universe Underfoot. Allen introduces us to both the literal and metaphorical importance of good soil in his quest to transform a community from the ground up. The book highlights questions of access and equity to food and to economic resources. It considers America’s complex racial history, drawing connections between changes in food and culture and explores the disconnection of urban communities from their rural roots. The book explores the concept of social entrepreneurship, highlighting the financial and ethical tensions behind efforts to use business to promote social good.

Given Growing Power’s bankruptcy, some may wonder why we selected this book. The book is honest about the challenges inherent in this project of transforming a community through food. As Allen himself notes, “all big things are created by a slow and steady accumulation of small, stumbling steps” (p. 39). We believe this to be true for all of us, including our incoming students. Success may not come easily or immediately. Failure may be more common and more public than we like. As Gustavus seeks to equip students to lead purposeful lives and act on the great challenges of our time, this book challenges its reader to question assumptions, learn from history, seek justice, and face challenges with a sense of hope. 

About the Authors: Will Allen and Charles Wilson

After retiring from professional basketball and executive positions at Kentucky Fried Chicken and Procter & Gamble, Will Allen became the CEO of Growing Power. He lives in Milwaukee. Charles Wilson is a journalist and the coauthor with Eric Schlosser of the #1 New York Times bestselling children’s book Chew on This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food. (Source: Penguin Random House)

Learn More About Will Allen

Meet the Godfather of Urban Farming, Who’s Breeding the Next Generation of People to Feed the World
Meet Will Allen, The Urban Farmer Starting His Own Revolution
Will Allen, Urban Farmer (MacArthur Foundation)

Learn More about Growing Power

Growing Power
Behind the Rise and Fall of Growing Power
Urban farming: Lessons from Growing Power

Reading in Common Events:

Book Discussion & My Earth Sample Collection

Monday, September 3
Location to be announced

Dirty: The Soil Film Festival

Thursday, September 20, 7 p.m.
Wallenberg Auditorium


Dirty: The Soil Film Festival

Friday, September 28 & Saturday, September 29
Wallenberg Auditorium


Nobel Conference 54

Living Soil: A Universe Underfoot

My Earth Display

October 2 & 3, 2018

My Earth Project

My Earth is a collaboration between the incoming first-year class, the First-Term Seminar Program, the Campus Activities Office, and the Nobel Committee. Participants will collect soil samples from their home place, which will be displayed in an artistic presentation at the Nobel Conference. 

Incoming students who attend Gustie Gear-Up! will receive a container and instructions for collecting and documenting a soil sample from their home place. 

Domestic students who cannot attend Gustie Gear-Up! will receive instructions in the mail and are encouraged to collect a soil sample in a ziplock baggie. 

International students who cannot attend Gustie Gear-Up! are encouraged to take a photo of land from their home place, since transporting soil across international borders is generally not permitted. 

Collect a sample of earth/dirt/soil from your home place. Your home place is a location to which you have a strong personal connection; the place where you are rooted (your backyard, the camp where you spend your summers, a family farm, the place where you spend most of your time, etc.). 

Use provided materials to write the location of your sample and a brief description of why you chose the location you did for your sample.

Bring your sample and written description/explanation with you to New Student Orientation. You will talk about your sample during the Reading in Common book discussion on the Monday before classes begin. We will collect samples and written descriptions at this discussion and these will be used for a display at the Nobel Conference, Living Soil: A Universe Underfoot, in October.

What do first-year students need to do?

  • Actively read this book before arriving on campus.
  • Take notes.
  • Highlight passages you think are important.
  • Consider the following questions for discussion:
    • Consider where you get your food. Do you have a grocery store in your neighborhood? Do you have a Farmer’s Market in your community? Is the food you have easy access to affordable? Is it healthy? Compare and contrast your experience accessing food to the experience of Allen’s Milwaukee community.
    • Allen writes, “...the fate of a seed can be predicted by the health of the soil where it takes root” (p. 63). Consider yourself as the seed and your environment as the soil. What kind of soil were you growing in before being transplanted to Gustavus? What kind of soil do you you want to find/cultivate root yourself in during your years at Gustavus?
    • Allen devotes several chapters to his backstory. Allen is also open about his own failures and setbacks, including his financial struggles. He says that “all big things are created by a slow and steady accumulation of small, stumbling steps” (p. 39). Do you feel that this is true? In what ways have you grown from “small, stumbling steps” you have experienced personally?
    • What does this book tell us about the importance of soil and the challenges of creating healthy soil? Does it make you pay attention to, value, or think differently about soil? What does Allen inspire you to do for your soil?
  • Be prepared to discuss the book with your Gustie Greeter and group facilitator during orientation.

Obtaining Your Copy

The Good Food Revolution is available for purchase at The Book Mark or from online retailers. The Book Mark is located on the lower level of the Jackson Campus Center and will have copies of the book available for purchase during Gustie Gear-Up! 

Teaching Guide for "The Good Food Revolution"

Goals and Aims of the Program

  • Encourage intellectual interaction among students in conjunction with faculty
  • Welcome students to the academic life of Gustavus
  • Facilitate a shared academic experience for all students
  • Emphasize reading as a significant component of the college experience
  • Tie together transition and integration experiences of first-year students
  • Provide opportunities for first-year students to explore issues and ideas relevant to our community and our world
  • Connect to the Nobel Conference theme

How is the Reading In Common Program used?

All first-year students and Gustie Greeters read the book over the summer. These students will meet with faculty members during orientation to discuss the book. The book is often used as a reference or resource in students' First Term Seminars (FTS).

History of the Program

The Reading In Common Program began in the 2000–2001 Academic Year. Books in the Reading In Common Program have included:

  • 2018: The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities by Will Allen and Charles Wilson
  • 2017: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • 2016: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • 2015: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • 2014: Where Am I Wearing?, Where Am I Eating? by Kelsey Timmerman
  • 2013: A Pearl in the Storm by Tori Murden McClure
  • 2012: The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore
  • 2011: The Wolf at Twilight by Kent Nerburn
  • 2010: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
  • 2009: Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario
  • 2008: Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China by John Pomfret
  • 2007: Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
  • 2006: Honky by Dalton Conley
  • 2005: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • 2004: When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
  • 2003: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
  • 2002: The Legacy of Luna by Julia Butterfly Hill
  • 2001: The Chosen by Chaim Potok
  • 2000: The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

Books are chosen based on their literary quality, reading manageability (college level reading but not too long), interdisciplinary nature, and connection to the Nobel Conference theme.