Fresh, healthy, nourishing food is a human necessity. However, in modern society, food often comes with high out-of-pocket and environmental costs, is increasingly depleted of nutrients and is produced miles from where it is enjoyed, offering consumers little to no connection to the farmer or the growing process. These troubling aspects of modern food production inspired John VanDeusen Edwards to reimagine his own community as an untapped resource, full of leafy green potential.
In place of locked gates, grass-only lawns and communities devoid of connection, Edwards has spent the last three years building the Food is Free Project, a non-profit which grows both community and healthy food while also helping people gain independence from a “broken agricultural system.” The organization teaches how to establish sustainable front yard community gardens which provide free, shared harvests. The once novel idea is now a thriving movement that has expanded to elementary schools, community art spaces, farmers markets, churches and small businesses across the globe.
Ethical Foods spoke with Edwards about the organization’s recent move from Austin to Fayetteville, Arkansas, perceptions of food ownership, and how the most effective and lasting change sometimes starts on the micro level.
You describe the Food is Free Project as helping communities gain independence from a broken agricultural system. How has the modern agricultural system failed and how can the Food is Free Project serve as a sustainable alternative?
“It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where our food system got off track. To me, it seems there was a turning point where we gave up growing our own food for the convenience of having someone else do it for us. We became disconnected with our food as it became a commodity to be bought and sold. It became rare that farmers interacted with those who ate the food they grew and our food system became one that runs off oil, from tractors to pesticides to packaging and shipping food thousands of miles to our dinner table.
“The Food is Free Project was born in my front yard as I was starting my own journey towards reconnecting with food. I found that by growing food in front of my privacy fence, I started interacting with neighbors and people passing by. That simple moment of connecting was profound in our modern lifestyle where we all live in our own little boxes. I met one neighbor who told me that just walking past my front yard garden and seeing it grow inspired her to start her own front yard garden. Now she’s got all her friends growing their own food as well.
“The Food is Free Project is about taking the first step back out into our front yards, growing food and sharing the harvest with others. The power of our actions is strong if we do it out in the open. We all have the ability to make ripples that transform and uplift our piece of the world and those actions ripple out far beyond the visible horizon. We don’t have to feel paralyzed trying to change the world; just take the first step.”
What has the organization accomplished since its January 2012 founding?
“Food is Free started as a simple front yard garden. As I realized the power it had to connect people, I imagined what a whole city block might look like lined in front yard gardens sharing the harvest.
“After rallying some friends and salvaging materials, within five weeks you were in the minority on our block if you didn’t have a front yard garden. We had neighbors meeting each other for the first time in 20 years. More people started smiling, waving and talking on our block. I started to blog about our experience and invited others to take the idea and make it their own.
“Food is Free Project went open-source and within six months I was contacted by a new friend in Tasmania who wanted to start a Food is Free Project in her city. Before long the idea was resonating with people from around the world and now we’ve had more than 200 cities start local branches. It looks different in each community, but we’re creating a network of like-minded people who are learning from each other, inspiring others and proving that there is real power in small actions united.”
Why is community such a critical component of the Food is Free Project?
“Community and food used to go hand in hand. Food was grown by and for the community. Food unites communities and when we’re working with others sharing time with our hands in the soil, our differences fall by the wayside. Growing food in community is so much easier and you learn much quicker from other people’s mistakes and successes. Planting, harvesting and eating food that is grown together strengthens the bonds of a community and creates safer and happier neighborhoods.”
Instead of tackling entire cities or initiating a national campaign, the Food is Free Project intentionally maintains a more localized focus. How has the micro approach of concentrating first on individual streets and neighborhoods helped the project thrive?
“It can seem so hard to make a difference when our focus is on changing the nation or world. What is empowering is to see the lasting effects of our positive actions and that is most visible on the local scale. Even changing your city or neighborhood can seem very hard.
“We created a new normal on our block when 19 of the 30 houses began hosting a front yard Food is Free garden. It’s quite inspiring when we realize that we can make a lasting difference, and if we all focus on creating small changes they really add up. By decentralizing our food system we have more food growing closer to where it gets eaten. Walking past front yards turned into gardens makes a bold statement and gets people to notice what food looks like and how it grows, and invites others to reconnect with that process.”
Many homeowners associations and neighborhoods have regulations making it difficult for residents to construct garden beds or plant edible lawns. What advice do you have for those living in communities with these types of restrictions who still want to participate in the Food is Free Project?
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to growing food. We need to find a way to make it happen rather than find an excuse not to grow it. There is always a creative solution. I am constantly reminding myself of this.
“Consider growing mint instead of a green lawn. Think of how amazing that would smell. Initiate conversations with homeowners associations about starting a community garden to bring the neighborhood together. We’ve heard great success stories of ordinances changing to allow front yard gardens again.
“Gardens are truly beautiful, but maybe it’s in our human nature to resist change. If we can try to understand why certain ordinances are in effect, we can do our best to create win-win solutions that create beautiful, safe neighborhoods that also provide fresh food for the community. I even remember one man saying that one block away cars are getting broken into, but our street is safer because more people spend time out front and keep an eye on things.”
As one of the main principles of Food is Free is keeping the produce grown available to all, how do you also work to change people’s perception of ownership when it comes to food, gardens and even their lawns?
“It’s funny. When planting the first Food is Free garden in my front yard, a neighbor walking past asked, ‘But what happens if someone takes all the food?’ I said, ‘Great! That means it’s working.’ The look on their face was priceless. I think it’s engrained in our culture to fear ‘what might happen’ when often it’s all in our head. We’ve actually had a harder time explaining to people that they can feel free to harvest the food no matter whose lawn it’s grown in. If we all grow a little something and share our extras, we can and will live in a world of abundance. Scarcity is an illusion and it’s time we burst its bubble with small acts of kindness and a sharing economy.”
How were you first introduced to the wicking bed garden system, which has become the project’s trademark? How might this system be particularly helpful to drought-stricken communities or first time growers?
“It was the summer of 2011 and Texas was experiencing one of the worst droughts of my lifetime. We had more than 100 days above 100 degrees in temperature and I was doing research online for drought-tolerant growing methods. I found out about the wicking bed garden and built one with some friends.
“That August, in the intense heat, I didn’t have to water it once! I just put a shade cloth over it and it was overflowing with Swiss chard while I thought I was going to melt outside. It was clear that not only was it a great way to grow food in the drought, but wicking bed gardens are a great tool for low maintenance gardening or people who think they may have a black thumb.
“From there it was a matter of finding out how to build one out of salvaged materials like wooden pallets, political signs, burlap and old billboard vinyl. Nothing is perfect but the wicking beds have been a great tool and make a statement about our waste and consumption as a society as well as turn waste into a productive garden to feed the community.”
What types of produce are particularly well suited for wicking bed gardens?
“We’ve had great success with most veggies, but root crops like carrots and potatoes are better suited in the ground. We have the best success when starting seedlings first and transplanting them into the wicking beds, but if you have rain in the forecast, you can start from seed as well. We recommend starting with things like Swiss chard, collards, and other greens and herbs. Small victories will offer momentum to expand and grow more.”
How did relocating the project’s home base from Austin, Texas to Fayetteville, Arkansas open up new opportunities?
“We were humbled by the support of our community once we found out the home of Food is Free Project was being sold. One of our members said that since the idea is already going global it didn’t really matter where we go next. This was a beautiful reminder that the idea has gotten bigger than we could have ever dreamed.
“Giving up ownership of the project and allowing the community to shape its growth has been amazing. People around the world are tailoring it with their flavor.
“Meanwhile, here in Fayetteville, we’re meeting amazing like-minded organizations that want to collaborate and we have 170 acres to expand the vision. We’ll be growing more food than ever, experimenting with natural building and alternative energy, and hosting events to bring together art, music, theater and youth to combine and create amazing things together. We look forward to housing and hosting visitors and interns who want to dig in and then take these ideas back to their communities.”
Has the organization tracked any data related to the number of active garden boxes, the amount of food produced, the number of participants, etc.?
“Being an open-source project it has been very hard to keep track of hard data. We get messages and photos from around the world daily of people taking action in their city. If you search #foodisfree on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook you can see so much activity and inspiration. Though it’s hard to quantify, it’s clear the message is resonating with many and making a real impact, but we are looking forward to finding ways to collect more data and learn more about the gardens growing.”
Why is it so important to your organization that all start up and educational materials remain open-source?
“The open-source community is the way of the future. Hoarding knowledge gets us nowhere. We all have something to learn from each other. We also have more to teach than we may realize. With the power of social media, information and education are being liberated to the world. Open source means that our intentions are pure, nobody is profiting from these ideas and they are for the betterment of humanity. We’re all in this together.”
What are your long-term goals for the Food is Free Project? What legacy do you hope to leave?
“Planting that first Food is Free garden, I had no idea the potential of the movement it sparked. The fact that the idea resonates with so many is proof that there are lots of us who believe in a better world and are willing to work to make it so. We are excited to see our community grow to reach every country around the world and empower people with the knowledge and tools to take back our food supply, re-localize it and create a world where we all have access to fresh, healthy food.
“We truly believe that food is a human right and there’s work to do until nobody goes to bed hungry. We look forward to a new normal where our streets around the world are lined with fruit trees, front yard gardens, community gardens, food growing on rooftops, hanging from balconies and sharing tables set up in local parks where people can swap and exchange their bounty. We can live in a world of abundance. It all starts with that first garden.”
How can readers learn more about the Food is Free Project and introduce it to their own communities?
“Start sharing ideas and conversations with friends and neighbors. Consider hosting a potluck and rally together a small crew to make things happen. Plant a garden in your front yard or find a place to grow food and share the harvest with others. Share your #foodisfree photos with us online and start making ripples in your neighborhood. You never know who you might inspire next and how it could transform their life. Dream so big it scares you but take the first small step towards making it happen. Invite others to join in because growing together is way more fun.
“Check out our starter PDF guide on ‘How to Start a Food is Free Project’ at http://foodisfreeproject.org/resources/ “
Visit the Food Is Free Project website