Located an easy 90-minute drive from Melbourne, the regional town of Ballarat has joined a growing global movement responsible for reclaiming public spaces and transforming them into living, breathing food hubs. Home to a volunteer-run, not-so-secret garden, Ballarat’s Food is Free Laneway provides the community with free food, a space to connect and a place to promote the joys of growing your own produce.
With the 2016 Foodbank Hunger Report revealing that one in six Australians did not have enough food to eat in the past year, the Food is Free Laneway is serving a genuine need, while also reducing food waste and increasing connections within the community. Like many other community initiatives, the Food is Free Laneway has humble origins.
Moving to Ballarat after 20 years in Melbourne, the initiative’s founder Lou Ridsdale rediscovered her passion for gardening and soon found herself with an oversupply of fresh produce. Inspired by the guerrilla gardening movement, Lou got to work after reading about the Food is Free Project in Texas and other successful gardening programs around the world.
Located next to Lou’s house, the laneway has expanded since its inception in 2014, thanks to a strong supporter base and legion of eager volunteers. These days, tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries, lemons, kale, radish, lettuce and a range of herbs can all be found growing in the laneway.
Visitors also drop off all kinds of produce they have grown or picked from backyard trees. From custard apples to persimmons, plums, zucchinis, tangelos, walnuts, artichokes, pears and spinach, the laneway is a bit of a moveable feast. “What you find in the laneway is pot luck and that’s the fun part of visiting – the element of surprise is intriguing,” says Ridsdale.
Ridsdale believes the ongoing popularity of the initiative is partly due to the strong community involvement that saw the laneway flourish over the past few years. “From the get-go I was determined to make it a community effort and I think that’s the reason it’s grown so quickly. If you get the community on board from the beginning it really does make the best foundations and connections,” says Ridsdale.
While providing free food to the community is the main aim of the project, Ridsdale believes the social benefits can’t be underestimated. “I’ve seen all types of magic happen outside my window – from people reconnecting after 20 years absence, to people sharing recipes, volunteers interacting with visitors, and kids coming after school on their bikes for some fruit. It’s sometimes hard to strike up a conversation with strangers, but not so in the laneway – after all, we all have one thing in common as humans: we all need to eat,” says Ridsdale.
Repurposing a range of donated items, the higgledy-piggledy laneway has given many old items a new life. The inside of a washing machine is now used to grow food, old pallets have been turned into gardening tables, a toolbox now acts as a seed bank, beach umbrellas help shade plants in summer, and house guttering is now used as a place to grow strawberries. A donated water tank helps reduce the water bill while a compost tumbler gifted by a stranger now sits pride of place at the top of the laneway. People drop by regularly, leaving coffee grounds, egg shells and food scraps for the compost bin.
With the laneway flourishing, Ridsdale is keen to grow the movement beyond the space next to her home. Thanks to the support of Ballarat City Council, the Food is Free Laneway has recently been allocated a space at a nearby football oval to grow food on a bigger scale and feed more people. “The bigger space will enable us to involve other community groups in our gardening. We will also be able to conduct self-sufficiency classes to teach people how to grow their own produce,” explains Ridsdale.
Having just registered as a not-for-profit, Ridsdale is keen to secure funding to take the concept further. Having seen the multitude of rewards that have flowed from the laneway, she believes that schools, nursing homes and prisons could benefit from having food-producing gardens on-site. “For me the best reward is seeing daily examples of how people care for each other in my community. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve cried out of moments of simple, sheer joy,” says Ridsdale.