Too Good to be True? “Food is Free” Movement Turns the Food Industry on its Head

In a capitalist society, it’s easy to think that anything with a “Free” sign attached to it is a hoax. After all, the saying goes, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” But for John VanDeusen Edwards, founder of The Food is Free Project, and the thousands of people joining the movement, food should be free and it should be shared widely. 

Growing Community Through Food

In 2012, Edwards was living in Austin, Texas. One day, in his front yard, he built a garden bed out of old shipping pallets and political signs. A sign explaining that the veggies and herbs were free for the neighborhood was staked into the soil. In order to maintain neighborly communication, he set up a whiteboard for people to write their contact information, in case they wanted help building their own front lawn garden or just wanted to stay in touch. 

Response was slow at first, Edwards reports in his informational video, but in less than three months, nineteen out of thirty houses on the block had their own front yard gardens, and together, they planted over 200 gardens around their hometown of Austin. 

Thus, the Food is Free Project planted its roots. Its mission is to transform communities through ultra-local food production and repurposing salvaged materials. Most of all, when neighbors share with each other, they begin to trust each other. Along with all those juicy tomatoes and leafy spinach, the community will grow, too.

Since 2012, the concept that food can be free for all has spread across the planet. Today, over 300 cities around the world have created their own Food is Free Projects.

Below, we share the stories of other people who have brought Edwards’ concept of food-sharing into their own communities, and the great impact that free, healthy food has on the mind, body, and soul.

Lou Ridsdale

Located in Ballarat, a city of Victoria, Australia, Lou Ridsdale is a gardener who created the Food is Free Laneway—an alleyway beside her house lined with tables upon tables of free produce, plants, and seed packages. Ridsdale says she was inspired by Edwards’ Food is Free Project as well as guerrilla gardening. In 2014, she began setting surplus vegetables on display. Word spread of her initiative, and soon, others were dropping off their own produce. Similar to a “food swap,” Ridsdale told The Guardian, “We have a saying in the laneway that nobody is judged on what they bring or take as long as they leave with a smile. I’ve met so many more people than I would have met before, and that doesn’t happen often in modern society. Usually it’s hard to strike up a conversation with a stranger, but the laneway has become a bit of a confessional box; I’ve often had tears in my eyes.” 

Ron Finley

For designer Ron Finley, free food isn’t only an act of kindness; it’s a form of social justice. Known as the Gangsta Gardener, Finley is transforming his South Central Los Angeles neighborhood one urban garden at a time. Years ago, Finley gave up eating fast food, but soon realized that in his neighborhood, “it was easier to find fast food and alcohol than an organic apple.” He began to ask some major questions: “Why do I have to leave, out of my neighborhood, to get anything healthy? Why are these communities of color designed like that? There are thousands and thousands of people in my neighborhood. We’ve got liquor stores, churches, dialysis centers, churches, liquor stores, dialysis centers — and on and on it goes.” Finley realized he’d have to make the changes he wanted to see in his neighborhood.

He began by planting an edible garden in the parkway (between the sidewalk and the street) in front of his house. The city gave him a citation and ordered him to remove the garden. Fighting for the right to keep his garden was Finley’s first “act of defiance.” (The law has now changed, thanks to Finley, and gardens can be legally grown on parkways!)

Now, he travels across the country, giving Ted Talks and presentations, encouraging others to become guerrilla gardeners. While he agrees that fresh and healthy food should be free and accessible, Finley recognizes that financially free doesn’t mean free of time and labor. There’s a sense of community responsibility in guerrilla gardening; a sense that everyone needs to work to make healthy food free.

“We’re taking our health into our own hands,” Finley says. “We’re refusing to rely on big agriculture and fast food. That’s defiance.”

David Thompson

“I grow food to give away,” David Thompson of Tacoma, Washington says. He is frequently found working in his 4,000 square foot garden plot, donning his overalls and garden gloves, picking the daily produce and chicken eggs to display on a table in his yard. “I set it out here. People drive by and pick it up,” Thompson says. Living in a high-poverty area where one in seven people lack access to healthy food, Thompson’s table provides a healthier alternative.

His goal is to unite his community with food, and inspire other neighbors to set up their own “free food” tables. “Food can do that… growing your own stuff and giving it away can build that community.”

Thompson recently organized a GoFundMe for the Food is Free Project Tacoma, in order to continue the project’s growth and assist more people to create their own gardens. “Together we can make this happen,” Thompson writes. This, he means, is a food revolution, a future where food deserts are eradicated, and healthy food is available for all. “Together, we can do this.”

Want to know how to start your own Food is Free Project? Click here to get started! 


Photo Credits: John Anderson (for The Austin Chronicle); Lou Ridsdale; Stephen Zeriglaer (for Alternative Apparel); David Thompson.

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