I sat down to talk with Michael Ableman recently and quickly realized I was meeting a modern day pioneer with the expertise to fix our broken food system. Organics, local, GMO, and family farming are not new concepts for Michael, co-founder of Sole Food Farms. He’s been an organic farmer for over 30 years and is the heart and soul behind a movement to get urban farming to become a household name. His huge contribution to Sole Food Farms is sharing expertise in organic farming and teaching his craft of producing amazing organic food grown from hybrid seed. After meeting Michael and researching Sole Food Farms – there are two things I’ve thought about daily and I hope this article has the same effect on you: how you view empty urban lots and could urban farming cure our North American food crisis?
Sole Food Farms transforms empty lots in Vancouver’s West End and turns them into street farms that grow amazing food. Individuals that struggle with addictions and mental illness are some of the staff employed to manage the food production on these lots. The new skills learned by the staff at Sole Food Farms support the fact this company is also in the business of growing people and connecting communities with food. The large disconnect people have with food seems to narrow when you drive through the city and find yourself staring at one of the 4 active farms. Check out the below picture of the False Creek Sole Food Farm located right next to the BC Place sports stadium. The contrast of urban nestled beside agriculture is powerful.
This week Sole Food Farms opens their virtual doors to sell farm shares with weekly produce pick-up service as part of their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Do you want to become more rooted and connected to locally grown food? Making a commitment to the growers behind Sole Food Farms has obvious outreach past gaining access to food grown with the highest organic standards. Because Sole Food Farm employs farmers grappling with personal challenges such as addiction or mental illness, they are investing in nurturing our communities and the people within them. So if you’re just learning about Sole Food Farms and think it’s the coolest thing ever (because it is!!) and want to be a part of this food movement, purchase a farm share and invest in the food and growers. Or follow Sole Food Farms on Facebook and find out when they next need volunteers to finish the orchard they are planting at Terminal & Main in Vancouver. Right in the heart of the city, Sole Food Farms is currently planting the largest orchard in North America. All food grown will be sold near the site making it 0 mile footprint which is also amazing. They will need wheel barrows, shovels, and man power at short notice so if you want the opportunity to work with Founders Michael & Seann & community farmers, keep your eye out for updates.
Talking with Michael was amazing. When I asked him about the state of our food crisis, specifically surrounding GMO food his response was surprising. While most people view GMO pesticides and pollution with soil and water in farming to be the largest problems – Michael sees the food crisis as more a ‘growing power’ issue. In other words our food crisis can be summarized as ‘lacking in participation’ because when you have 1-2% of the population in the outer layers of communities doing the work to grow all the food – a detachment from food is formed. Urban farming, which is growing food within the cities we live, rather than growing food in the outskirts of communities solves many problems with food detachment. This method of farming also solves the issue of growing power with more people encouraged and inspired to grow food in vacant city lots, backyards, and community gardens. Could the food crisis we are all so worried about actually be solved with the idea it needs to be grown in the communities where we live? I hope this article leaves you pondering these issues after learning more about urban farming.
The biggest impact statement from Michael (for me) is that urban farming could solve the stress of GMO (genetically modified) food. Could empty lots we see in every urban community and city be the answer? Could it be that simple participation in food production is the answer? The movement to grow food in yards, community gardens or empty lots renews engagement with food. You also realize that it’s not easy to grow and so the appreciation to spend money on high quality food becomes more important to individuals and families. More than any other country, North Americans spend the lowest portion of their income on food. We are still under some strange perception that cheaper is better when it comes to buying food. Only 11 cents of every dollar is spent on something as important as our nourishment and this is something unique to North America. Wage percentage spent on food in Europe is closer to 20% which is a huge shift but our priorities are so disconnected from other parts of the world. Even in countries with extreme poverty, the importance of food and growing in urban areas is more prevalent. Granted this is out of necessity from lack of food, but the quality, pride, and urban farming principles have other cultures much more connected to their food. So Michael believes a more sustainable food system could exist with urban farming. “When you focus your attention on the local world in which you live, when you come back home, real change is possible. But the real shift we need cannot take place when only 1% of us is doing the work to grow the food for the rest – we need to reclaim our personal engagement with the food we eat.”
Michael likes to talk about joining the terms urban and agriculture and the best examples have evolved from raw necessity. Cuba has one of the most sophisticated urban agricultural systems in the world. There’s an estimated 200,000 people employed in urban agriculture there, providing close to 40% of the food consumed in Cuba’s cities. But that system in Cuba came forth out of a crisis of significant proportions. An entire nation was facing starvation. We, too, are facing a food crisis, one that has been brewing for some time. But the impacts of our crisis have yet to become personal enough to force the kind of structural changes that need to happen. The majority of the world’s population is no longer living in rural areas. They’re living in cities. In fact, a significant percentage of the world’s poor is not surviving from the products of distant farms, they are surviving from their own tiny little postage stamps urban gardens. That’s a very critical thing in many parts of the world. We have a great deal of knowledge as to how to do this well, whether it’s on rooftops or in small plots in urban neighborhoods. We’ve got to grow food closer to where it’s being consumed. It’s very very important. We’ve got to reconnect the nutrient cycle, also very important. That has to happen by bringing the food and the people together again.
I can’t help but wonder if we re-structured our food system in the US and Canada and modeled it after Cuba if we could solve the 3 biggest problems connected to our food crisis: eliminating the concern regarding GMOs, connecting our urban communities with making use of front lawns & empty lots, and reclaiming our connection to clean food. Stay connected with the good work Sole Food Farms is doing in the city of Vancouver. I give my thanks to Michael for spending time talking about his passion – food. He is the author of these books and has been a leader in urban agriculture long before it started making headlines – it’s hard to not be convinced he didn’t start the movement. Michael’s story and the Sole Food Farms movement is something that feels amazing to learn about and support. And after reading this – I hope you start noticing the number of empty lots in your community. I can’t help but see them everywhere (!!) and think what a wasted opportunity. My twins jumped into this picture of a city lawn – but actually having them in the picture gives emphasis to the notion that little community hands could be making something pretty cool in a raised garden bed rather than walking through overgrown grass.