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Sole Food Street Farms

Sole Food Street Farms transforms acres of vacant and contaminated urban land into street farms that grow artisan-quality fruits and vegetables while employing the poor and homeless, the drug-addicted, and the mentally ill.

Since 2009, Sole Food Street Farms―one of North America’s largest urban farm projects―has transformed acres of vacant and contaminated urban land into street farms that grow artisan-quality fruits and vegetables. By providing jobs, agricultural training, and inclusion in a community of farmers and food lovers, the Sole Food project has empowered dozens of individuals with limited resources who are managing addiction and chronic mental health problems. Central to their vision from their beginning has been a commitment to building a community with and for the people they’ve hired and trained - among them the poor and homeless, the drug-addicted, and the mentally ill. The growing process has been incredibly healing.

Sole Food Street Farms is a network of urban farms located on five acres of reclaimed land throughout downtown Vancouver. In 2020, they produced over thirty-five tons of fresh produce, including tree fruit from a large urban orchard, supplied more than 30 area restaurants, sold at several Vancouver farmers markets, and operated a community-supported agriculture program. A significant amount of produce is now donated each year to community kitchens. The project provides paid employment to 25 people.

Michael Ableman, its founder, believes that urban farming is a means to create positive change in people’s lives and in the community. There is power in growing food. Urban farming connects people with each other and to the broader world. Unlike many social service projects whose goal is to train people and move them on, Ableman believes the farms and the community that works them are touchstones that provide stability for individuals who do not have any in their lives.  As such his model is for people to stay and continue to work at the farm for as many years as they wish. Solefood now has individuals who previously never kept a job for months, having worked with them for more than a decade. He has witnessed a remarkable development of skills, knowledge, and agricultural sensitivity from his farmers. The experienced farmers become leaders and are compassionate with the new farmers who join them. For two years they have demonstrated a successful economic enterprise that, according to a study done by Queens University and updated more recently, for every dollar paid to their staff, there is up to a $5.07 savings to the broader society in the form of social return on investment (SROI).

As employers, Michael and his staff’s goal are to maintain a sense of belonging, even while balancing the expectations that employees will do the jobs they were hired to do. His employment model allows people to fall off the wagon and still keep a job. If someone does not show up for days or even weeks the question when they return is not “where have you been?”; it’s “how are you doing?” Michael has developed a moveable urban farm system using innovative portable growing boxes that address two of the most common physical challenges of urban agriculture everywhere- contaminated soil and high land values that necessitate short-term leases. Details of his journey can be found in his most recent books, Street Farm- Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier (Chelsea Green 2016) and Farm the City - A Toolkit for Setting up a Successful Urban Farm (New Society 2019).

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