Interview with Food is Free Project Founder Discussing New Farm, The Project’s Growth, and How to Start a Project in Your Community.
I’m a firm believer that food is a universal human right which speaks in a universal tongue, and is indeed the foundation of human culture–a facet of daily life that, when utilized as a force for change, can move mountains. I interviewed John VanDeusen Edwards, the founder of Food is Free, an inspirational permaculture project with local and global influence, to gain some insight into how exactly this mountain–moving takes place.
But First, What Exactly is The Food is Free Project?
Building Community Locally
The thriving Food is Free permaculture teaching farm began in Austin, TX but has since expanded to a new farm in Arkansas. It is a catalyst of empowerment where permaculture ethics have taken root in the hearts of communities worldwide. The goal for the new, permanent teaching farm in Arkansas is poised as an inspirational training-grounds for leaders and youth.
According to the Food is Free website, the project had humble origins yet has high aspirations–one front yard garden inspired nearly a block full of others in less than three months time. These neighbors traded the produce, tools, and materials with one another, sharing the surplus with anyone else. This is the meaning of Food is Free.
A quote from their website: “Imagine driving down your street, where the majority of homes host a front yard community garden, neighbors come together for potlucks, establish tool-sharing and community composting programs while creating safer, more beautiful neighborhoods.”
Inspiring Community Globally
Driven by the mantra that food is free and always will be, they’ve established a Facebook page that at the time of this writing has acquired more than 170 thousand likes, inspiring humans all over the globe. Holding up signs saying Food is Free in both English and their native tongue, folks from Frick, Switzerland; Tulare, California (USA); Pevensey Bay, England, and many more share their garden bounty freely with neighbors and passers-by.
Crystal Stevens writes on Mother Earth News that FIF “has become an open sourced idea free for the taking because of the profound inspiration it has given to thousands of individuals, families, neighborhoods and communities all around the world.”
For me as well, The Food is Free Project has been a near daily inspiration over the past 6 months. I first caught wind of their videos, where they create affordable and accessible wicking bed gardens from repurposed and salvaged materials for their friends and neighbors in Austin, TX.
To find out more, I interviewed John VanDeusen Edwards, the founder of Food is Free.
Interviewer: My impression of Food is Free is that it’s a well-timed response to a system that simply isn’t working for most people. Judging by its popularity, it’s an incredible source of inspiration and a welcome drink of water, so to speak, for thirsty people in communities around the globe.
John: Indeed. It’s an idea that’s simple yet revolutionary, though I didn’t really realize it at the time I was planting the first #foodisfree garden in my front yard. I was just experimenting and found that gardening in the front yard connects you to so many neighbors and can be a way to start more connections about how we can build community through food. The cities that have launched chapters of Food is Free are making it their own to fit the needs of their own community, which is a beautiful thing about open-sourcing an idea.
Q: Did Food is Free start with a vision this expansive or did the project grow *pun intended* more organically?
A: It started as a neighborhood project and however in just 5 short weeks we were able to create a city block where you are in the minority if you don’t have a front yard shared garden. This was a powerful experience, and because we were using salvaged materials that could be found in any city, it became clear that documenting our progress and sharing the journey could help others inspired to make a difference. It wasn’t long before I had a big vision of going global but it took it’s own organic time for leaders to rise up, reach out and start a branch of it in their own community. The first project to start was in Tasmania on the other side of the globe. That was about 9 months after we started in Austin and then the second city to launch a food is free city was a small college town only 30 minutes from Austin in San Marcos, TX. The idea literally went around the world and back again in less than a year and I knew we were onto something. The growth wasn’t something we could rush, just like an organic garden, it has taken patience, vision and persistence and we seem to have hit some kind of tipping point which is very exciting.
Q: How many cities around the world have implemented Food is Free projects and to what extent are the community members involved?
A: Over 220 cities around the world have connected to start Food is Free chapters. Because we’ve open-sourced the idea, we are focusing on inspiring and empowering people to take action rather than forcing people to follow specific rules and actions for how to start a FiF project. It will look unique from one city to the next. LA and NYC might have to utilize rooftops, vacant lots or window sills while other cities can use front yards or set up a #foodisfree produce sharing table in a local park.
Q: What is the biggest challenge Food is Free has faced?
A: We’ve had to be flexible and willing to evolve and grow without always knowing what the next phase of our evolution looks like. Initially we thought we could go around Austin and just put in gardens everywhere and we planted over 200 gardens around town but many weren’t maintained so shifting and realizing that we hadn’t failed we just needed to focus on how to train leaders and inspire them to take action on their block so that things can be kept up and there is a leader to connect with those who have questions and want to get involved. In a way we had to completely give up control of the idea to allow it to evolve into the grassroots movement that it has become.
Q: Tell us a little about your new farm. How are things going with it?
A: It was tough when we learned that our first teaching farm was going to be sold after all the hard work we put into it, yet by launching our indiegogo campaign and sharing it with the world, word spread and we got offered an amazing space to expand the project in Fayetteville, AR. Not long after we moved here, the Austin leaders who stepped up to keep FiF Austin rocking got offered 30 acres in Manor, Tx to grow, share and teach. Things are evolving and expanding on all fronts and just 6 months ago we would have never seen it coming. We’ve connected with lots of great food organizations and local farmers here in town and already have plans to line some high-visibility areas in food is free wicking bed gardens as we plant the seeds of this idea in our new home. Meanwhile we’re going to be growing more food than we ever have since we have over 50 acres of pasture to work with. We are looking into no-till permaculture farming methods that require little input but produce high yields and are excited to experiment with upscaling some of our ideas and sharing the harvests though free CSA programs. We will also be exploring natural building, solar, hydro and lots of other ideas, filming videos and hosting farm interns and guests who want to dig in, learn and go back to their city to start a Food is Free Project.
Q: How can someone start a project in their own community or town?
A: We are releasing a free PDF guide as to how to Start a Food is Free Project. It breaks it down to 5 easy steps to get started but the first step is sharing the idea with friends and neighbors through conversations and interactions. You’ll be surprised how quickly you might meet like-minded individuals and have a team to make it happen. It all starts with that first garden so plant it and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. When we do it together, we learn faster and have a blast. DIT is the new DIY. :)
Q: How would they have support from the online community?
A: We answer every email and personal facebook message directly to offer advice and share our perspective on what worked/didn’t work for us. Sometimes all you need is someone to bounce and idea off or some moral support. We’re also working on a new website which will host a forum where we can all learn from each other and connect with people near you.
Feel Inspired? Here’s Where to Start
Remember that FIF started with one front yard garden–something one household, or one group of friends, can handle together. The project then spread to the entire city block; but started small. Each of the 220 cities to follow adapted the open sourced model to their needs.
Here’s a video on how to build a wicking bed garden from free, repurposed materials
and the free PDF guide on hot to Start a Food is Free Project to help you get going–so team up and DIT–Do it Together!