AUSTIN, TEXAS–John VanDeusen Edwards is all for keeping Austin, Texas weird, but once he took a step outside the bustling big city where he grew up, he realized that quirky wasn’t always a good thing.
“After college, I took a sales job selling insurance door-to-door around Texas,” he says. “I was working in these small towns where everyone knew each other. There was a sense of connection there that seemed to be missing when I’d come back to Austin, where I didn’t even know my neighbor’s name across the street.”
John is tall, long-haired, friendly, compassionate, and incapable of checking his personality at the door, so when he made sales pitches for his company, which specialized in cancer insurance, he couldn’t help but make a few friends in the process. “I was talking to people all day about why they think we have so much cancer in our world,” he says. “Time and again they would reference the food we eat and the chemicals that surround us.”
John realized the gravity of two enormous challenges facing modern-day Americans–a lack of community and a need for a healthful life–so in January 2012 he set out to tackle them both. Along with his friend Jonathan Horstmann, he kick started the nonprofit Food is Free Project. The project’s mission is to inspire and empower people to meet their neighbors, grow food together, and start creating a new kind of community that encourages all people to develop a relationship with each other and the food that nourishes them.
Now retired from selling insurance—and working as an urban farmer and musician with the band Mighty Mountain (www.mighymountainmusic.com) instead—John and Jonathan have since garnered the support of tens of thousands of gardeners, botanists, enthusiasts, and amateurs with his project, which has spread from his front yard in Austin to communities around the world as far away as Tasmania.
How did the Food is Free Project begin?
It began here on Joe Sayers Avenue in Austin, Texas. After a friend gifted me a pack of seeds, we started some seedlings together and planted our first garden. Though we failed miserably, growing micro-carrots and with very little gardening knowledge, we were hooked. Before we knew it, we were connecting with other gardeners in the community and realizing how much quicker the learning curve is if we do things together. We started teaching a couple of backyard farming workshops at our place and as interest grew, we were also planting our first front-yard garden. It was from that small 4×4 plot that we realized that there was something special about doing our gardening out in front of our six-foot-tall privacy fence. Though we had plenty of land behind the fence to plant, our decision to do it where we meet our community was inspiring, to say the least. From the interactions that were sparked as neighbors strolled by or walked their dogs, we got to thinking what it might be like if a whole block was lined in front-yard gardens and experience a true sense of connection in the middle of a big city.
What specifically catalyzed your mission?
We believe that food unites and connects us, and it is a medium that can bring us together to start further conversations about how we can work together and support each other. Though I’ve been a city boy my whole life, working jobs in small towns turned me on to what community can look like; it’s not weird to know your neighbors, but rather, it’s weird not to! It finally dawned on me that things could be different. How funny that we rarely question the way things are and imagine what could be.
Did you and Jonathan have a specific mission in mind at the onset of the Project, or did the mission develop and grow as time passed and interest grew?
The first garden was really an experiment but even though it was a small garden, the community connections it started were absolutely clear. It started to get me thinking why things couldn’t be different. It seemed crazy but we figured if we could get salvaged wood and other free materials and volunteer labor, we could plant gardens and offer them to neighbors for free. We figured if we could eliminate all the barriers and obstacles that keep people from gardening, we’d have the best chance of success. Once we learned about wicking-bed gardens (drought-tolerant, self-watering gardens) we knew we were on to something. They only need to be watered every two to four weeks so that makes it easy and cheap to maintain. We had a kickoff party announcing our vision to line our block in gardens and share the harvest as a pilot model of the idea that we’d then blog and open-source to the world. Within five weeks we had done it. Along the way, we’re learning about all kinds of cool actions and projects we’re inspiring that have nothing to do with food. It all excites us and we’re looking forward to seeing things continue to evolve.
Since the project began, what progress has it made?
Though we’ve created a very successful pilot model of how to create real change on your block at the grassroots level, the majority of the change we’ve inspired and affected has been from the ripple of our actions that continue to inspire others. Food is Free has evolved far beyond the idea we once dreamed, and each story that comes full circle about how we inspired someone to take action or follow their own dreams gives us momentum to keep going strong. Each year we grow stronger and more connected. We have big plans for video content, online guides, and how-to’s to get started on your block, and a new social-media tool to connect and get you growing with your neighbors. Our biggest strength has been our flexibility, so we’ll continue to move forward, evolve, and grow together in ways I’m sure even we can’t imagine.
Can food really be free? Does de-commodifying food make sense in a dollar-driven society?
Food can be free, and it is free once we learn how to grow it, how to identify the food that’s already growing all around us, and take actions to turn empty, unused space into productive harvests for all. The slogan “food is free” can be taken in many different ways, and can mean both monetarily free as well as unfettered by the reins of a broken agricultural system. At the outset of the project, people expressed concern, saying, “What if people harvest all the food?” Great! That means it’s working, and we haven’t had any problems whatsoever.
How does the Food is Free Project bring people together and benefit the community?
Food these days is very much a commodity. Unfortunately, we’ve lost touch with our connection to the food we eat. We believe that by planting a garden we reestablish that connection to nature that we’ve lost touch with. When we grow our own food, we eat better, cook together, eat together, and live a more full life.
The Food is Free project has grown to be a much bigger movement than just what we’ve started here on Joe Sayers Avenue in Austin. We’ve become a gardening army of over 20,000 people around the world who share ideas and are taking actions, both large and small, to create a better world and directly influence their surrounding communities. We’re creating a model here in Austin of what it looks like when the majority of houses host a front-yard community garden, compost together, raise chickens and aquaponics, share community meals, get their hands dirty together, cook together, potluck, and share knowledge through free workshops and skill shares. We’re having a blast and at the same time documenting our successes and mistakes so that others can learn from what we’re doing and tailor them to fit the needs of their own communities.
If we all work to lift up our little piece of the world, all of a sudden the whole world is lifted.
Video courtesy of the Food is Free Project.
Want to get involved?
The Food is Free Project grows community and food, while helping gain independence from a broken agricultural system. The Food is Free Project is a community building and gardening movement that launched in January of 2012. We teach people how to connect with their neighbors and line their street with front yard community gardens which provide free harvests to anyone.
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