In the backstreets of suburbian Ballarat runs many a laneway connecting the cute country houses. While most are sparse spaces to meander, one in particular has recently become lined with benches and baskets of free food.
Started by Lou Ridsdale, a local resident and music publicist, in October last year, the Food is Free Laneway is a place in the local neighbourhood where the community gather, bringing their excess home-grown produce, and taking home items that others have shared.
It’s as simple as ideas get, proving that it needn’t be complicated to bring community together, grow and share food and encourage local and seasonal eating. We took the wet and frosty drive out to visit Lou and the abundant laneway nestled against her home.
What is Food is Free and what do you do?
“In essence it is a laneway that I’ve taken the space to utilise for the purpose of sharing produce, demonstrating that you can grow food in a small space, and that you can bring a community together.
“I’ve got to know all my neighbours, I didn’t know them very well and now we’re a close-knit community. And there’s a bunch of regulars that come all the time that I now know very well, and their lives and their stories. It’s about making the community safer and greener in a space that’s not being utilised.
“Food is Free Laneway Ballarat is a combination of guerrilla gardening and the Food is Free idea that John VanDeusen Edwards started in America in 2011. He started off with a planter box out the front of his house with a ‘food is free’ sign and then he lit the spark right down his street and it extended into the suburb and beyond. I’d also heard about guerrilla gardening from a guy called Ron Findlay who does a TED talk about central LA and how he’s set up an initiative to feed a lot of homeless people and engage at-risk youths to do more gardening and help share produce with the community so there’s food equity and people have equal access to food if they’re living in impoverished areas. So it’s a combination of both those things and it started in October last year.”
What led to starting it, what your background is?
“I lived in the city for 20 years but was a country kid, and I forgot about gardening in all that time I was living in metro areas, because I was living in apartments and didn’t have the space to garden. So when I moved back home to the country and made my tree change, I realised that I loved gardening and that it actually was something I was good at. It was really nice to have something outside of music, which is the industry that I work in.
“From there I just gardened way too much and ended up growing way too much produce and that’s where I decided to start up the Food is Free Laneway because it meant sharing the produce, and I’d run out of friends and family and neighbours to give it to.
“There’s also no coincidence that it started up in October when the elections were on and I was becoming a bit of an armchair activist on Facebook and realising I was ranting too much and getting a little disgruntled with the current situation of government.”
When you first set up what was the community reaction?
“It was a slow process, I know it’s a cliché, but it was organic and grass roots. I left a couple of polystyrene boxes in October with a handwritten ‘food is free’ sign, and it took a couple of weeks for people to actually realise what it was. I think some people, and still to this day, sort of look around and think that they’re stealing or that they’re going to get into trouble, because we’re taught in society that nothing is free. But it actually is, and this is an example of it. So the idea of Food is Free is about sharing, it’s a space to share and look after each other as humans.
“I know for example that we have some regulars in our laneway that definitely are struggling with life and feeding children, and they may have issues with drug and alcohol which impairs them to eat good nutritious food, or doesn’t allow access to it all the time. And I know that they like to come to the laneway because it means they are anonymous, no one judges them, no one asks them why they’re in the laneway and why they need to take food. And the big thing about Food is Free Laneway is that no one is judged. They come in and can take what they need and want and there’s no questions about who they are, what their story is. My aim is for everyone to leave the laneway with a smile – or food, hopefully! Or they can drop off food and leave with a smile too.”
What does a typical week involve?
“Every morning I wake up and go out there, I always like to check that it’s still all in one piece – although in over six months now there’s not been one bit of vandalism, it’s really marvellous how respectful people have been. I tend to go along and give everything a tidy up and check if there’s any spent food. I have a band of volunteers who help as well. It’s been marvellous to have them onboard.
“Even when it’s raining you see people gathering in the laneway. I was looking out the window the other day and it was hailing and someone had an umbrella and was happy to be wandering up the laneway – crazy but true! There’s no real typical day but there’s definitely constant foot traffic.
“People tend to come and have a stroll and a look, I know for example a lot of neighbours have changed their walking route so they come through the laneway more just to see what’s there.”
Any triumphs or hurdles to note?
“One of my favourite things I think about running the laneway has been meeting people like Nick and Kate who run the Ballarat Veggie Verge two blocks from here. Essentially, they grow produce and people can come and take it and replace it with their seedlings. So it’s encouraging food swap but in a seedling sense. Meeting people like that have been amazing as they’ve taken the baton and run with it as well.”
“People have done Food is Free in an informal basis forever. You always hear about people sharing their produce with friends or neighbours or work colleagues, so it’s actually not a new thing, but I think people now have a name for it they’re encouraged to do it on their own property.”
Any advice for those setting up their own?
“Just do it in your own style and at your own pace. Just do it really slowly and surely and let it mutate in any way it needs to. And just be passionate, passion always will see you through. If you’re interested in setting Food is Free up we’ve got an online PDF resource that we got from Food is Free in America – a ‘how-to’ guide.”
What inspires you in what you’re doing?
“My inspiration is that it’s really naughty! I’ve kind of been one of those people who knows that there’s rules and regulations in place, but I think that you’re allowed to colour outside the lines too. And as long as it’s safe and no one is getting hurt, I get a little bit frustrated with councils with their dictatorial ways, particularly when it comes to things like environmental issues. I walk around all the time just looking at concrete and think, ‘oh my god, there’s so much stuff you could grow if you rip that up’. I love being a gardener and I’m just constantly looking at spaces where I could grow more produce, it’s an absolute addiction.
“It literally just blows my mind that people just don’t plant food. As Ron Findlay says, it’s a license to print money. People who don’t garden don’t understand that it actually saves you a lot of money, that it’s enjoyable, it’s therapeutic, it’s cheaper than counselling. For me it’s my outlet for being creative, and the reward of growing something is really fantastic for your soul. It’s the fundamental thing of being compassionate to other humans too – that if you’re growing food you can share it.”
What’s next for Food is Free?
“Big changes. It’ll be migrated across the road to the park [with the support of local council]. I’ve run out of space, and the new spot is accessible and has ample parking and is nice open space, it’s very visible too so people can see it. Come spring we’ll have an opening day and a street party and involve the community and get a working bee to migrate the stuff here over there.
“We’ll continue to also promote the Food is Free Day on the first Sunday of every month. It’s just a Facebook event that I set up to encourage people to participate. Just leave an item of food or more outside somewhere prominent, at your workplace or home, and if there’s not anywhere you can put it, get creative or leave it in a bus stop shelter or somewhere – somewhere it’s accessible to people – with a ‘food is free’ sign. So it’s literally just leaving out produce for some passerby to take. I just had a little image one day where I thought, imagine if you walked by and everyone had a little box of something by their door for everyone to take, it’d be pretty amazing. We wouldn’t have to go to the supermarket, that’d be a good thing!”