10/21/2013 08:26 am ET Updated Dec 21, 2013

Fast Food, Reimagined

Nothing about our current fast-food system is inevitable. Together, we have the ability to create something better and different.

Instead of "PlayPlaces" with rubber balls, I think fast-food companies of the future will have edible gardens where young people from our barren inner-city neighborhoods can plant seeds, harvest vegetables and fruits, and interact with nature. Instead of paying their young employees the bare minimum, fast-food executives will understand that the financial stability of their employees' lives increases the stability of their families' lives, and by extension the stability of cities. Their restaurants will demonstrate how unnecessary it is to ship vegetables from California's Salinas Valley to Chicago or Detroit. They will employ young people who might otherwise be unemployed on their rooftop greenhouses--training them as "agriculturalists," providing useful skills, and keeping money inside of communities.

We can makes these changes if we work together. I think the most successful fast-food companies of the future will reimagine themselves as "community food centers": growing fresh food intensively onsite, diversifying their business model, and treating the wellbeing of their young customers and employees with greater care than the needs of their shareholders.

I worked for a decade as a regional manger of six KFC restaurants in Milwaukee before leaving, in mid-life, for a career as a farmer. My franchises operated mostly in African-American communities without grocery stores. In the aftermath of a tide of urban disinvestment in the 1970s and 1980s, fast-food chains like mine became the only reliable source of perishable food available in many neighborhoods of color. A 2002 study of the food environment in several states found four times as many grocery stores in predominately white neighborhoods than in predominately black ones.

Fast food restaurants moved into these "food deserts," sensing a business opportunity. Today, they are uniquely positioned to be forces for good if they made products that were more healthful. I saw how fast-food jobs could teach young people useful skills: how to work with others as a team, be accountable, to arrive on time. Yet much of the money that my restaurants generated did not reward the young people working for us. Some fast-food companies have defended their practices by using the language of "free markets" and "personal responsibility," but the U.S. government paid $7 billion last year in public assistance to fast food employees and their families--in large part because the industry has kept wages so low. Restaurant revenues are siphoned off instead to pay for the corporation's franchise fees, marketing, and an unwieldy supply chain. These companies are far from self-reliant.

My work over the last two decades has been to create a new model for feeding our urban communities. In the early 1990s, I left my corporate job and purchased the last two acres zoned for agricultural use in the city of Milwaukee, next to Wisconsin's largest public housing project. With the help of volunteers and staff--many of them young African-American people from the projects and surrounding neighborhoods--we have built an urban farm and "community food center" that now produces forty tons of fresh vegetables a year. We supply fresh sprouts and micro-greens to the city's school system, grown intensively on several levels within our greenhouses. We have an apiary with more than a dozen beehives, producing urban honey. We have several hundred egg-laying hens. We raise one hundred thousand fish in systems that resemble freshwater streams. We redirect food waste away from local landfills, and collect wood chips from city agencies, and compost it. This compost creates our fertile soil, naturally--and also generates heat that allows us to grow food year-round. We partner with small area farmers, providing them markets in communities without many sources of fresh, local food. Last year, we opened a café in a "food desert" on Milwaukee's Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Our organization, "Growing Power," offers ideas for how the fast-food industry could reshape itself. Fast-food restaurants could become community centers in neighborhoods that lack them, bringing people to the same table. They could provide cooking classes in their expansive kitchens to working mothers, charging people on a sliding scale according to income. They could have non-profit components to their businesses, harnessing the generosity of local corporations and charities, and offer health education, meeting rooms for local organizations, horticulture training, and even fitness classes.

Our young black men and women are suffering from a health crisis, and fast-food chains have a responsibility not to profit off of their misfortune. These companies have the potential to do good if they think anew.

Will Allen, a MacArthur Fellow, is C.E.O. of Growing Power, an urban farm and land trust based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is the co-author, with Charles Wilson, of The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities.