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How Urban Farming is Healing Lives in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

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Living soil and steady, honest work brings hope to Canada’s poorest postal code.

By Stephanie Wood Posted Apr 4, 2017

Native American woman holding onions on urban farm
Walking down Main Street in Vancouver, British Columbia, you will be surrounded by crumbling buildings, bars, and a prominent population of homeless people occupying door stoops. Through the alleyways, you can see the high-rises of the city’s core glistening. And amid this juxtaposition of poverty and prosperity, you may come across the Sole Food urban farm at Main Street and Terminal Avenue, and be struck by the still rows of fruit trees in raised garden beds, a stark contrast to the blaring traffic.

This orchard is one of four urban farms Sole Food has established since 2009, and co-founder Michael Ableman is pruning the trees and preparing for the warm summer months. Ableman is a long-time organic farmer who began exploring urban agriculture in California in the 1980s. He was approached by the future co-founder of Sole Food Street Farms, Seann Dory, among others, to embark on an experiment combining urban agriculture and social responsibility. Now the farms provide organic fruits and vegetables for multiple Vancouver restaurants and farmers markets.

Over the phone, Ableman explains that Sole Food’s primary goal is to provide meaningful employment to the residents of the Downtown Eastside, the city’s “most underserved population.” The Downtown Eastside, which some have referred to as Canada’s poorest postal code, has developed an infamous reputation for its struggles with drug abuse, the sex trade, and homelessness. Despite there being many charitable initiatives in the neighbourhood, Sole Foods offers an original and creative solution.

Ableman describes the power of healing through tending to living plants. “After forty-two years of doing my work full-time, I and pretty much all of my colleagues have anecdotally noticed there is something that makes you feel better after a day of playing in the dirt,” he explains.

A study conducted by Queen’s University concluded that for every dollar Sole Food paid to its employees, $1.70 was saved to the health care system, the legal system, the social assistance system, the prison system, and the environment.

“There has been a number of studies that have demonstrated there is actually a physiological benefit that occurs from working with living soil… But there’s something else too. When someone has living plants that are depending on them; when they have a community of farmers, a team, that’s expecting them to show up for work; a neighbourhood that’s depending on the food – there’s a reason to get out of bed. For people who are dealing with long-term addiction, just that one act is a big deal sometimes.”

Indeed, Sole Food offers more job security for addicts than they likely have experienced before, promising a place to return to even if they’ve fallen off the wagon. “It’s been amazing to see the results for many of our staff. People who didn’t hold jobs for four or five months have been working with us now for seven or eight years,” says Ableman.

Economic challenges

Street Farm Book Cover
Sole Food also demonstrates the positive economic aspects that result from this social initiative. In his book, Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier (Chelsea Green Publishing), Ableman cites a study conducted at Queen’s University that concluded for every dollar Sole Food paid to its employees, $1.70 was saved to the health care system, the legal system, the social assistance system, the prison system, and the environment. Meanwhile, Sole Food also contributes to the local economy.

“When I’m weeding, I imagine that each weed is a negative thing or thought and I’m pulling them out and discarding them… I think about my life and what I am doing with it. The farm is where I come to make choices.”

–Sole Food employee

Yet Ableman strongly agrees that, “economic disparity is at the root of a lot of major issues” and that land possession has long caused unequal power dynamics. Particularly with the high property values in Vancouver, capitalism causes economic competition that Sole Foods can’t always overcome.

For example, when WestPark (a parking management company) began managing a lot Sole Food had leased, the farm lost some of its land to make way for parking spaces. Another one of Sole Food’s farms is being repossessed this year, and the organization must move by autumn. Sole Food’s business model, putting profit secondary to their focus of employing people in need, makes them less competitive in Vancouver’s cutthroat real estate market. As Ableman says, “we are merely temporary placeholders for developers until they’re ready to make the big bucks.”

The organization has struggled to find affordable land that is suitable for an urban farm, which must be large and flat enough for numerous raised garden beds. These raised containers are essential due to contaminated soil or paved vacant lots, and also are easier to relocate quickly. While Sole Food has found suitable land, each of their tenures likely has a looming expiration date.

These employees “have spent lifetimes of insecurity and instability, in terms of housing and income, supporting drug habits,” Ableman describes. “So, part of my job is to at least have the farms be that kind of stable part of their lives, that anchor that is dependable.” But due the precariousness of renting vacant lots, Ableman sees a direct parallel, musing that, “our sites are as transient as the people we’re working with.”

The urban farm as a safe ‘getaway’ from the streets

Sole Food’s staff has included some people so deeply scarred or so far into addiction that they were not able to maintain their position at the farms. Ableman regrets that some employees do not last, but emphasizes “we’re not trying to save anyone.” He points out he and Dory do not have social work experience, and they don’t offer therapy in a traditional sense – the employees have sovereignty to do what they will with the experience. Fortunately, many have found farming to be a turning point in their lives.

There are several examples of people in Street Farm who found working on the farm helped with their mental health. A woman who goes by the name of Seven said:

“When I’m weeding, I imagine that each weed is a negative thing or thought and I’m pulling them out and discarding them… I think about my life and what I am doing with it. The farm is where I come to make choices. It’s the right environment. It’s safe, a getaway from the hood, where there are drunks and addicts everywhere. It’s so easy to say yes to all that, it’s what you’re used to, it’s what you do, you’re a slave to it.”

People working on an urban farm
Another example is one of Sole Food’s original employees, a man named Kenny. Ableman describes a moment in his first year at Sole Food, at their first farm. “I watched him just looking at one of those plants, in awe of its fragile nature, and I sensed in that moment that he realized that plant was dependent on him for its survival. I saw his humanity that day,” he says.

Ableman emphasizes how the farm and farmers markets offer the public “different ways of engaging with the folks in the Downtown Eastside than they’ve had traditionally [which] has been very powerful in allowing people to work through some of their judgments,” he explains. “[The farmers] are suddenly somebody different, they’re somebody you can relate to.”

Urban-rural divide indicates a ‘crisis of participation’

Through the public visibility of the farms and markets, as well as through his book, Ableman also hopes to inspire urban dwellers “to try not to just be outside observers of an unusual enterprise,” but to get more involved in the process of producing their food.

“We don’t have a food crisis, we have a crisis of participation,” Ableman argues. “We have one-and-a-half, two percent of the population growing food for the rest. That’s a big problem. That’s where all the issues stem from.”

Ableman suggests that people living in the city try to grow their own fruits and vegetables due to their perishable nature, and allow larger farms to focus on grains, beans, dairy products and meats. He also suggests supporting organizations like Sole Food and attending farmers markets to support local growers.

Urban farm downtown Vancouver
While there are improvements to be made, Sole Food Street Farms has been a largely successful exploration of the challenges and possibilities met with urban agriculture, which Ableman depicts more in depth in his book.

“I wanted to tell the story of this incredible experiment, this enterprise, this adventure that we took with Sole Food,” Ableman elaborates. “How we worked with city government to make it happen on a scale that had never been done before. The story of the people, my incredible respect for the courage and perseverance they’ve shown in overcoming some major challenges in order just to come to work, and the great work they’ve done to make this happen.”

Sole Food has demonstrated that underprivileged people in the city can contribute to the local economy and to Vancouver’s sustainability goals. As well, they have provided vitality to their community and helped beautify monochromatic areas of the city. Most significantly, many of these urban farmers have begun new lives for themselves.

To learn more about Sole Food Street Farms, or to buy the book, visit http://solefoodfarms.com.

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Author photo
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Stephanie Wood is a freelance writer from North Vancouver, BC, with a special interest in environmental journalism. She enjoys hiking trails, finding thrift and antique treasures, and traveling abroad.
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