When I stepped onto the Fresh Roots grounds at David Thompson Secondary school in South Vancouver, I knew it was going to be a good day. The sun was shining, the kale was prime for picking, and volunteers were eager to get their hands dirty. I had the chance to harvest with Ilana Labow, co-founder and director of Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society, and chat about why urban farming is about so much more than growing food. Here’s what we got to talking about:
RACHEL: What does Fresh Roots do?
ILANA: Essentially, we grow community through food. We explore how we can transform public space into thriving community gathering places. And more recently, we’ve been expanding our capacity to work with cultural centres, institutions, and businesses to design programming around gardening for their organizational needs and priorities.
RACHEL: And what made you want to start Fresh Roots?
ILANA: It started in 2009 as a fun backyard garden project with my friend and myself seeing how much food we could grow in small spaces. We happened to share a fence with an elementary school that received grant money 10 years prior to grow a garden. But as the money ran out, the garden fell into disrepair. The school’s principal asked: “can you come over and farm here in our garden?” Eventually more teachers came to us that already had school gardens but realized they lacked the time, resources and knowledge for ongoing maintenance. So they proposed, “what if you farmed on our land and we get to use the farm as an outdoor learning classroom?” Three years later we partnered with the Vancouver School District and built the first two Schoolyard Market Gardens in Canada. The market gardens commercially produce food that gets distributed directly back into the neighbourhood while being utilized as community gathering areas for celebration, sharing, learning, and reconnecting people with where food comes from. We want to help remind people that carrots come from the ground, how hard it is to grow, and inspire our neighbours to buy locally grown food!
RACHEL: That’s fantastic! Fresh Roots sounds like it’s really ‘by’ and ‘for’ the community and unique how it does things. What else would you say is innovative about your approach to urban farming?
ILANA: I think it’s unique that we’re here by demand of the community. Also, we may be the only urban farm in the city that’s on publically owned land and operating at this scale. We strive to sell our food, aligned with our vision and mission, in the neighbourhoods it’s grown in at our weekly Good Food Markets, in school cafeterias, and restaurants that share our values. We also translate our materials into the languages shared in our neighbourhoods, helping encourage diverse participation in the local green food economy. As well, we’re in two neighbourhoods (South and East Van) that statistically have the least equal access to healthy, fresh, locally grown food. We sell to these neighbourhoods at affordable prices, and our other main clients are local neighbourhood house programs, food security initiatives, BC Housing mobile markets and restaurants.
RACHEL: And in the growing of the food itself, I’ve noticed when reading your philosophy that the idea of “holistic land stewardship” is central. What does that mean?
ILANA: Our Farm Manager Scott can probably answer that best!
SCOTT: Sure. Holistic land stewardship means we manage the farm like a complete ecosystem the best we can in a fragmented urban agricultural setting. For example, we have a mini tree forest buffer for a more natural habitat for beneficial insects and pollinators, but what it comes down to is a balanced system. We manage the soil in a way that is better than how we found it by building organic matter that is good for microorganisms which help grow healthy plants.
RACHEL: That idea is key in our organic principles, as well! But on this topic of viably growing food in the city, I recently read a Grist article which suggested that urban farms are more hype than realistic when it comes to feeding cities. As an urban farmer, what are your thoughts on this?
ILANA: Well, I don’t think we can clump all urban farms together because they’re independent businesses with unique mandates. It’s a young and growing sector in our society. Even outside of incorporated urban farms, there are many people from agrarian backgrounds with expertise from around the world growing food in the city. We need to remember there’s a lot of urban farming done by people who are supporting their families and/or selling their food. It can include our grandma and her best friend growing food in the backyards of South Vancouver. For people who say urban farming is just “new hype,” it’s what our grandparents used to do before there was a market they could buy all their food at!
RACHEL: Exactly! That’s such a great point. And from your personal experience of growing food in the city, what other value have you seen for people and the community? How have people been touched by their experiences here?
ILANA: There are countless stories that keep me impassioned, from 10 year old boys arm wrestling for the last broccoli flower to a grandfather who volunteers with us weekly, sharing his experiences of his farm in India while teaching his grandson about their heritage. And then there’s youth like our volunteer Winnie who have decided to study in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at UBC to help further the impact of sustainable food production. All of these stories keep me inspired, even when my job requires me to sit in an office most of the week, because we are creating jobs that help inspire our staff and community to dream big.
RACHEL: And what would you say is the most challenging thing about what you do?
ILANA: Building the business. I went from an agriculture education background to becoming the Co-Executive Director of a local non-profit. It’s been a huge learning experience growing a grassroots organization into an operation that can collaborate with the public school system. Working with schools is full of bureaucracy and can be challenging, yet every teacher we support in getting their students outside, learning in unique garden places makes it worth it. Teachers and principals have become some of my biggest sources of inspiration.
RACHEL: Well, the hard work seems to be paying off. Your operations are growing and you’ve been recognized by the City of Vancouver as a Greenest City Leader! Where do you see Fresh Roots headed?
ILANA: We believe in Good Food for All. We envision a world where everyone has access to healthy food, soil, and community. Loneliness is the number one thing that plagues Vancouverites. We want to live in places where people know their neighbours, feel safe, connected, and are inspired to make sustainable life choices. We want to see cities use their land assets to help build community within neighbourhoods. We work towards this goal by cultivating engaging gardens and programs that catalyze healthy eating, ecological stewardship, and community celebration. Our work is one part of a bigger vision to create safe, inclusive communities.
RACHEL: And how can the community further support you?
ILANA: There are a number of ways to get involved with Fresh Roots. We are looking for volunteers to help us with social media, communications, and marketing. We’re always happy to have people approach us with their unique talents and skills and see how we can work together. We’re also about to post applications to join our 2015 Board of Directors! Lastly, one of the best ways to support this work is to buy our produce. Restaurants can request a fresh sheet from firstname.lastname@example.org, and community members can come out and purchase food from our weekly Good Food Markets in South and East Vancouver!