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Street Farm: A change agent’s guide to creating social impact

Michael Ableman’s latest book helps urban farmers grow more local food and create more jobs

Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs and Hope on the Urban Frontier (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016) by Michael Ableman is the story of Sole Food Street Farms – an urban farm in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, which provides jobs and agricultural training to people managing addiction, homelessness, and chronic mental health problems.

It is a shining example of the ways in which a holistic view of business leads to social, environmental and economic benefits for everyone.

Michael shares that, “Sole Food was built on this very simple idea: rehabilitation through meaningful work. Growing food is high on the list of meaningful work. It brings us down to real basics; it allows us to see cause and effect play out daily, to see how our action or inaction creates interaction. We feed the soil that feeds the plants that feed us. We begin to sense how working with plants and soil and sunlight and rain and wind can heal us.”

Nova, one of the Sole Food farmers, coined the term “farmily" to describe the support system that Sole Food provides. Michael elaborates to share all of the manifestations of community that farmily implies, from the interdependent microorganisms in the soil to the human community that depends on the farm for nourishment.

While Michael’s career has been in agriculture and farming, his perspective offers insights for anyone who wishes to use business as a means for economic inclusion. Street Farm provides lots of examples of farmers that have been impacted by their work at Sole Food but, far from being altruistic, it shares the reciprocal benefits of managing a business that is focused on more than just profit. Thoughtfully, Michael writes,

“Jordan and his father [two of Sole Food’s farmers] have taught me so much – about generosity, about taking care of one another, about forgiveness. Their lives are proof that, just like the plants we grow, humans are resilient and will thrive when given proper nourishment, a sense of community, some respect, and something meaningful to do.”

Street Farm leaves the reader with no question of the public benefits of Sole Food’s model, and Michael does a masterful job of transparently exploring the business challenges of working with a sometimes unreliable base of employees. There are certainly easier ways to grow food; however, Sole Food’s approach is creating a broader legacy.

“Allowing the public to directly engage with people they might not normally engage with is a powerful service for both our staff and the community. We all get to look at our fears, our judgements, and our stereotypes when someone out of our circle offers a sample of a tomato or strawberry or pepper. Is it safe? Who are these people? What is Sole Food? This small, momentary public exchange and the questions it engenders offer us all an opportunity to move toward understanding and acceptance. Once again, we see fresh food as the medium, the messenger, the means by which all of us, no matter where we come from, come together.”

A true social entrepreneur, Michael sees his work as part of the process of reimagining the systems that support us. The environment, the economy, and society have all been negatively affected by globalization and industrialization, which have not adequately recognized the extent to which everything is interconnected. The way forward begins with re-localizing and rebuilding the necessary skills to meet everyone’s basic needs.   

“Those of us who are re-educating ourselves, rediscovering our place in nature, must refine our skills and diligently work to create the local and regional models. I am sure the day will come when we will be sought after, looked to for leadership and guidance, when our farms will be the living models, the repositories that keep this sacred and essential hands-on knowledge alive.”

TAKE ACTION:

  1. Get your copy of Street Farm, and meet Michael Ableman himself, when you purchase a ticket for the kick-off event for REAP’s 9th annual Down to Earth Week: Growing Food, Jobs & Hope on April 23 at Fort Calgary. Just $25. Click here to reserve your spot now.
  2. Want a more intimate opportunity to chat with Michael Ableman? Join us at Deane House for a fundraising dinner in support of Sole Food Street Farms after the event at Fort Calgary. Click here for details.
  3. Visit Sole Food Street Farms online to learn more about their work.
  4. See what other events will connect you with Calgary changemakers and social innovators during Down to Earth Week 2017, presented in partnership with SAGE Connected Investing, by clicking here.