To be an ecoconscious Vancouverite in 2016 means eating local as often as possible.
Whether it’s shopping at your neighbourhood farmers market or supporting farm-to-table restaurants, dining close to home not only reduces your carbon footprint—think of the thousands of kilometres sometimes required to ship a bunch of spinach to the supermarket—it also helps eliminate waste associated with food storage and refrigeration during transport, as well as the staggering amounts of packaging that come with the process.
Salt Spring Island–based farmer, photographer, and author Michael Ableman was ahead of this “shop local” curve when, in 2009, he cofounded and established Sole Food Street Farms in what has long been considered Canada’s poorest postal code.
By transforming vacant lots in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside into fertile farms that provide artisanal produce for its community and surrounding markets and restaurants, Sole Food has created employment opportunities for dozens of the ’hood’s at-risk residents while significantly improving the way in which the city views and sources its food.
“In the process of trying to create a model that is truly agricultural, we’ve been able to address some broader ecological and economic issues as well,” Ableman tells the Straight by phone.
In addition to reducing the pollution and packaging that are often byproducts of the delivery and distribution of produce, Sole Food helps to protect the city’s ecosystems by forgoing the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. And although the farms’ belief in organic practices is not something that Ableman publicizes, it’s a commitment that has benefited the Downtown Eastside greatly.
“It’s less to do with what we’re not doing and more to do with what we are doing,” he says, “which is trying to create really dynamic soil health, which makes plants healthy and our immune systems strong.”
What Ableman and Sole Food cofounder Seann Dory have also done—and continue to do—is offer stability and hope for individuals living with mental illness or struggling with, or recovering from, addiction.
Since Halloween of 2009—when approximately 100 volunteers arrived at the corner of Hawks Avenue and Hastings Street to clear the Astoria Hotel parking lot of empty beer bottles, used syringes, and other trash—Sole Food has evolved into a network of four thriving urban farms that harvest kale, strawberries, herbs, and everything in between.
However, the formation and growth of Sole Food have not been without their challenges, as Ableman chronicles in his recently released book, Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier.
Interlaced with portraits of the residents turned farmers—and the uplifting ways in which they’ve been moved by their work—are recollections of obstacles within and out of Sole Food’s control, such as rodent infestations, the unpredictability of its workforce, and thousands of dollars lost in equipment theft.
“I’ve often said I look forward to the day that the tomatoes and peppers are disappearing rather than the tools,” Ableman notes of the theft specifically, “because it says people are valuing the produce as much as they do the stuff.”
Still, it’s not hard to see why Sole Food—and the courageous people it employs—continues to be a source of inspiration for the farmer and activist. In addition to shedding light on the ecofriendly impact of urban farming, Ableman hopes that Street Farm will encourage policymakers to reflect on the changes that such community spaces can facilitate.
“My hope is that people will be inspired to realize that urban agriculture is possible in our cities,” he concludes, “that there are ways of helping individuals who have addictions and challenges that are maybe not within the toolbox that’s currently being used.”