Story by Kate Petrusa
Ilana Labow and her Fresh Roots Urban Farm team are taking a close look at the viability of urban farming in Vancouver, both in theory and practice. Fresh Roots Urban Farm is a collection of community farm spaces, including neighbourhood yards and sections of school grounds, being used as spaces to grow food, but also to grow community. They sell the produce from these spaces through a Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) box program and involve the students, teachers, and neighbours in the growing and harvesting. These spaces also double as gathering places for teaching, meeting and enjoying.
Fresh Roots Urban Farm’s current direction comes out of Ilana’s 8-month experience interning at Growing Power, during her undergraduate degree in UBC’s Global Resource Systems (GRS) program. Growing Power, too, is a collection of urban farm sites, growing very intensively on small areas in Chicago and Milwaukee, often in reclaimed inner-city locations. Ilana attributes much of her inspiration and practical knowledge at Fresh Roots to working with Growing Power: “I would never be able to do anything I am doing, if I had not worked with them. The work they do has a profound impact on thousands of young people and older people’s lives everyday and every year. Many of the youth they work with come from all kinds of challenging places, places where it can be hard to find positive role models. When [Growing Power CEO] Will Allenwalks into a room, just his presence and the way he speaks gives these youth the opportunity to believe that life could be different than what they have seen so far.”
Three years ago, Fresh Roots humbly began in one backyard garden. As an experiment, Ilana’s friend Gray Orion turned his backyard lawn into a garden. To amend the new garden, Ilana and Gray started collecting food waste from the Farmer’s Market and composting it. Gray almost single-handedly packed seven CSA boxes per week from this yard. In their second year as project partners, Ilana and Gray expanded to a patchwork of eight backyards around East Vancouver, which were established through word of mouth, and craigslist advertisements. Undaunted, Ilana recalls, “Our goal in 2010 was to see how much we could grow in these eight small urban spaces and how much we could sell to the neighbourhood. It was from that question, our lives changed forever.” As a graduate of the program, Ilana approached the GRS administrators in UBC’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems and suggested they offer students Directed Studies credits in exchange for completing summer internships at Fresh Roots. The faculty agreed and provided this opportunity to two students. Says Ilana, “the [students] had an astounding summer, we had an astounding summer and really got a lot out of it. Those students who interned with us that summer, it really got them into farming.”
Fresh Roots’ expansion took off rapidly after that successful summer in 2010. Ilana was invited to join the Vancouver School Food Network, a group of educators committed to using gardens to help achieve BC core-curriculum objectives. Through contact with that group, Fresh Roots was one of three local producers selected to participate in a pilot project at Windermere Secondary School, designed to touch several elements of the food cycle. Students in the Windermere Culinary Arts Programprepared meals, using produce from Fresh Roots’ eight backyards, for a nearby elementary school’s hot lunch program. In turn, Windermere’s physical education students were given course credit to pick up the food waste from the elementary school by bicycle, and this waste was added to the Windermere school garden compost.
In the face of such success, Fresh Roots remained remarkably level-headed. They had begun to see the challenges associated with the absence of a single, centralized farm and with keeping eight backyards financially viable in the long run. But serendipity struck. As Ilana recalls, “One of our backyards shared a wall with Queen Alexandra Elementary, which had a garden put in about 10 years ago with a big pocket of grant money. Over time, the garden overgrew and the principal at the school really wanted help reclaiming the garden. When she saw our garden literally through the fence, she offered us that land to help her reclaim the space.” In exchange for transforming the space into an outdoor classroom, and teaching the teachers some creative ways to use the space, this school garden would become one of Fresh Roots’ primary growing sites. “It has been a truly successful partnership. I’m watching little boys arm wrestle for broccoli flowers and little girls standing in a straight line waiting for collard greens. They want to eat everything that comes out of this garden.”
This coming growing season, with support from a generous $50,000 Vancity Good Money Impact™ Venture Challenge prize, Fresh Roots will be entering into new agreements with two other schools to build two new school farms this year. “We are calling them our schoolyard market gardens, but they are essentially ¼ acre small farms on school grounds. We want to understand if this model is financially viable for Fresh Roots, and meaningful for the school educationally.” While it is understood that this partnership is a project in its early stages, its goals are clear. Fresh Roots needs to find a way to cover the operational costs of Fresh Roots, while simultaneously using their growing space as an outdoor learning classroom for schools and community groups. For Ilana, she recognizes that her gardens are not “just going to be rows of crops, but rows aroundgathering spaces, designed specifically to enable community gatherings and festivals.”
Like Growing Power, Fresh Roots Urban Farm is becoming a place to grow food, but more than that it is becoming a place that grows community and awareness. Ilana would go so far as to say that food education and community, is the role of her urban farm: “I don’t think we would genuinely be able to feed a city in any way, but I am watching our urban farm sites become ‘middle men’. They really become these stepping stones, where the whole neighbourhood is rethinking where their food comes from. These community-invested school farms are really expanding the market for just locally farmed food, in general. I think that’s the big thing with urban farming – that huge potential to expand the market for our small-scale rural farmers. I see us expanding the market, neighbourhood by neighbourhood.”
The work of urban farms goes beyond operating a business to increase local food available in cities. Urban farms like Fresh Roots, provide a profound educational tool that enables more urban folks to rethink their food sources. At the same time, urban farms provide a space to reclaim our local urban areas by developing beautiful, aesthetically pleasing gathering spaces. Ilana couldn’t have said it better: “I feel excited about the future, and all the potential that urban farms have for our city. ”