Nonprofit urban farms are springing up on rooftops and vacant parking lots across North America. Producing more than organic food, they're also growing community spirit.
Urban farming has taken on a new social spin. Based on Canada’s West Coast, the Sole Food project is leading the way with its innovative approach: the nonprofit Sole Food farms aim to support those with limited resources with agricultural training, employment, and a community.
The roots of urban farming
Mohamed Hage is credited with starting the first commercial urban rooftop farm. Based in Montreal, Lufa Farms now spans a 32,000 square-foot rooftop. Since the first greenhouse was erected in 2011, Hage has been spreading the word about the importance of sustainability and urban farming throughout North America. Now, almost six years later, urban farming has taken on a new social spin.
The latest rooftop and parking lot farms are now of the nonprofit sort. One of the biggest nonprofit urban farms, called Sole Food, can be found smack in the middle of Vancouver’s busiest streets. Michael Ableman, a farmer, social activist, and author seeking to change the way that urban communities connect with rural farmers, is the voice behind the Sole Food movement. The Sole Food project teaches Vancouver’s disadvantaged inner-city residents a different kind of street smarts.
Feeding more than mouths
At first glance of the Sole Food website, it may be hard to imagine how a program of this scope could possibly work. Sole Food doesn’t employ salaried workers to harvest plants and learn complex urban farming methods. Instead, Ableman is teaching recovering addicts, people with mental illness, and those who call Vancouver’s streets home how to farm.
Why? “Good food is a basic and fundamental human right,” says Ableman. He believes that Canadians are part of a system where “good food is only available to a small segment of society”—a segment that can afford organic grocery store prices.
It’s hard to purchase quality food in Canada when you’re reliant on a monthly government cheque—harder still when you’re living on the streets. That’s why Ableman’s Sole Food project isn’t “ … just growing food … it’s growing people.” People who, in turn, can grow produce that is fresh and healthy and that can be sold to fellow urbanites at a reasonable cost.
The wider picture
While Ableman admits there are challenges to working with people with addiction and mental illness, he maintains that the point of Sole Food is to ignite a relationship between urban and rural farms.
Ableman’s vision is a noble one. He sees a world where rural farmers and urban residents support and communicate with one another. His world is full of fresh produce that’s grown on rural farms and eaten on urban tables. Right now, says Ableman, the current “food system is not working.” He’s “trying to turn the food system right side up.”
This begins with projects such as Sole Food, which bring awareness to urban centres. Eventually, Ableman’s goal is to forge a “relationship between urban and rural farms.” “Planting veggies is not the answer—a broader way of thinking is,” he says.
Sources and resources
If you’re feeling mindful of the fresh food movement, there are plenty of ways you can get in on the action too. Keep in mind that not all urban farms are nonprofit, but nevertheless, commercial urban farms offer great environmental benefits too.
Find urban farms across Canada
All across Canada, urban farms are popping up. Here are some examples:
- VegetablePatch in Ottawa (vegetablepatch.ca)
- Lufa Farms in Montreal (lufa.com)
- Sole Food in Vancouver (solefoodfarms.com)
- Fresh City Farms in Toronto (freshcityfarms.com)
Want to do your own urban gardening?
- Some urban farms, such as Fresh City Farms in Toronto, hold seasonal urban farming conferences. (freshcityfarms.com/get-involved)
- Urban farm websites sometimes have downloadable documents such as how-to manuals.
- You can also check out gardening centres or groups near you for courses or tips on urban farming or balcony/container gardening.
- Growing food on a small scale isn’t hard, but it does take a good deal of dedication. If you want to start up a program like Sole Food or Lufa Farms, you will need to have some farming skills first (Ableman has four years of solid farming under his belt), or find someone who does.
You can also help spread the word about the importance of a better relationship between urbanites and rural farmers by reaching out to an urban farmer like Ableman and asking how you can help.
Or simply speak with the farmers at your local farmers’ market. Farmers are often willing to sell to the public directly or to help you find ways to support local farms. As Ableman states, “Better relationships are the answer.”
Why go local?
Food that’s grown locally just tastes better. Produce that’s shipped from other countries and provinces can sit inside of a truck or container for days or weeks. To make matters worse, fruits and vegetables are often picked before they are ripe, so that farmers can fill massive grocery store orders.
People became tired of white strawberries, rubberized cucumbers, and wilted lettuce leaves, and the local food movement began.
Setting up spaces across North America
Cities around the world are quickly catching farming fever, with a community-building spin.
- Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has been visited by First Lady Michelle Obama, who took a tour of the Chicago location during a press conference tour. Growing Power helps urban residents set up rooftop and street farms and is based on the mandate “to grow food, to grow minds, and to grow community.”
- New Urban Farmers provides Rhode Island low-income residents and at-risk youth a place to turn for farming education and local produce. At the farm’s original site in Pawtucket, RI, seasoned urban farmers host classes and help Rhode Island residents grow fresh food.
Nonprofit urban farms across Canada
Ableman isn’t alone in his quest to promote social change through urban farming. Here are some examples of organizations across Canada that are strengthening communities through urban farming.
- Alterrus Systems: an urban farming initiative also based in Vancouver. Although the Alterrus model is different from the one Ableman is working with, Alterrus Systems does employ workers from the nonprofit organization Mission Possible, a group that helps people who are currently homeless or in need of charitable aid.
- Just Food: an Ottawa-based nonprofit spreading the news of urban farming, helping residents to create urban farms, and creators of the “Plant a Row, Grow a Row, Donate a Row” program (encouraging gardeners to donate a row of produce to those in need).
- Chez Soi Gardens: based in Montreal, this nonprofit works with residents of the Chez Soi seniors’ home in collaboration with local youths to plant, grow, and eat fresh produce.
- Everdale Farms: this Toronto nonprofit acts as a farming school for urban residents. Residents can learn about urban farming and attend workshops.