The social enterprise farm
in the heart of the city
Michael Ableman is a lifelong farmer and founder of the Vancouver social enterprise Sole Food, a five-acre farm in the city's grittiest neighbourhood that employs people who have been abandoned by society. His new book Street Food: Growing Food, Jobs and Hope on the Urban Frontier (Chelsea Green Publishing, US $29.95) recounts that bumpy journey.
Q: You use the word incongruent to describe the Sole Food farm site on the Downtown Eastside. How has the feeling in the neighbourhood evolved?
A: When people close their eyes and think of a farm they see a pastoral scene with fences and a barn, rows of food and cows grazing. In our case, that visual is very different. Our farms float in a sea of roadways and tall buildings and along the alleys in some hard parts of Vancouver. The idea of farming in the city is something people are still getting used to. When you use the words urban and agriculture it still seems like an oxymoron. When we started Sole Food we had two primary goals: We wanted to provide meaningful training and employment to people with challenges like mental illness and addiction, but also to do something on a scale that was truly agricultural. That first year I remember looking at the crew we had and the job we wanted to do and thinking, "What have I gotten into?" Some of those same individuals have become very competent, skilled farmers. I never would have imagined we could do it.
Q: To what degree is Street Food your way of tossing seeds into the wind?
A: I felt very strongly that the story of this project and the people who participated in it — they are the heroes of this tale — was a story that deserved to be told. We worked with municipal government to do something that had never been done. We worked with people whose lives had gone off the rails and who most of us would have written off as low-life losers to create some purpose for them. We produce 50,000 pounds of food every year. Amazing. Who would have guessed? It can be a source of great inspiration and proof that it is possible to do something truly agricultural in the city.
Q: How important is it to include your failures when you talk about Sole Food's journey?
A: Quite a few of the reviews pointed out how honest the book is and this is a warts-and-all description of what we did. At this point in my life, I know that sharing your failures is often more worthwhile than presenting your successes. The book is in equal measure stories of the ways we fell short and continue to fall short and many of those stories are quite informative. This project has an unlimited supply of obstacles.
Q: The images and stories in Street Farm range from intensely verdant to blighted and anguished. Does that tension keep you motivated?
A: That is the duality of our existence and it couldn’t be clearer than on the Downtown Eastside. Those hard contrasts play out every day in the work we are doing at Sole Food. It’s an accepted part of who we are. I hope that is conveyed in those images and stories, that this is not an easy thing. There is no straight path to the top. It’s a long and jagged line. I’m really proud of the fact that it’s been hard and those are the lessons that are most valuable.
Q: What happens to people when they begin to grow food?
A: There’s something physiological that happens when you work with living soil. This is something that farmers have always known anecdotally and now science has caught up to it. I always noticed how much better I felt psychologically after a day of playing in the dirt. Studies demonstrate that the change is real, when one is intimately working with soil. When people have a reason to get out of bed each day — and that takes courage and perseverance for some of the folks we work with — a change takes place that is pretty profound. When they know there is a team of people depending on them, when living things rely on them and they know that those plants produce food for the community, they come out of themselves, they move forward. None of us at Sole Food are social workers. We just set the table and watched amazing things happen.
Q: Who is the hero of the Sole Food story?
A: The people from the Downtown Eastside made Sole Food Farms happen, so I am not the hero of this story. When I started this project I had many of the same prejudices I think many of us have. You walk down Hastings Street and you see someone with a needle in their arm and someone pirouetting in the street high on crack and you make judgments in your head. But those same people that I judged turned out to have hearts and souls, incredible creativity, intelligence and a desire to be functional in the world. They just need to be given the opportunity, and it is the most important lesson of the book.
The above article by Randy Shore first published on theprovince.com in Sep, 2016.