In a world that often relies on the relief of fast food, growing your own fresh, healthy produce can be almost revolutionary. In a regional town in Victoria, that’s exactly what Lou Ridsdale has seen: a healthy food revolution, driven by an enthusiastic community keen for connection — and delicious fare.

She’s the founder of Food is Free Laneway, which began in 2014, inspired by similar projects and so-called ‘guerrilla gardeners’ in the United States.

Ridsdale had just moved back to the country after a career in music and events, and fell in love with a more self-sufficient lifestyle, keeping chickens and growing her own food.

She read about a man in the United States named John VanDeusen Edwards, who began a project called Food is Free in Texas, providing free food for the community through planter boxes on his front verge.

She then ‘cottoned on’ to the guerrilla gardening movement, which takes over and raises gardens on land that does not belong to the gardeners.

These planted a seed in Ridsdale’s mind, and she set up a garden in the laneway beside her house in Ballarat to begin feeding others.

“It just gravitated and grew legs and people really loved it and warmed to it. [In the] early days, people were very suspicious and didn’t understand why I was giving away food,” Ridsdale recalled.

But soon, visitors “realised it was actually just an altruistic thing”.

“I think in essence what Food is Free is all about is actually any movement that can help feed and sustain a community by not only feeding but also being a conduit for conversation, community and interaction and meeting people,” she said.

“Because in today’s busy lifestyles we don’t always get to have that luxury of actually just getting down to grassroots and getting to know your neighbours and looking after each other.”

Since those early days eight years ago, Food is Free is now serviced by a team of 70 volunteers and sees 100 visitors a day.

She sees this as emblematic of food insecurity and the demand for food and says visitor numbers did ‘escalate’ during the COVID pandemic.

“But equally we also know that we can’t feed everyone. People power is great, but you’re also limited by human resources and money. Unfortunately, grants are great, but they are often project-based and disappear within a couple of months of appearing. You’ve got to be clever about funding,” Ridsdale said.

In that vein, the ‘core mission’ of Food is Free is to teach people self-sufficiency.

“We run a whole barrel-load of workshops about self-sufficiency, whether it’s growing your own food or having backyard chickens or fermenting food – anything that’s around that realm of sustainability. That’s what we focus on because you can’t feed everyone and it’s actually better to encourage people to grow their own food and realise the empowerment that you get from that. That also brings the community together because our workshops are attended by up to 30 people at a time.

“But the thing about Food is Free is it’s been really impactful. It’s actually sparked off a million conversations from a whole bunch of different projects, just like John in Austin, Texas did.”

Food is Free fits into wider movements focused on sustainability, both environmentally and socially.

The team encourages visitors to grow their own food locally so that they always have access to fresh food despite any crises in supply chains. They are advocates for soil health too.

“People don’t realise that soil health is [connected] to people’s health because that’s where our food is grown.

The fact that there’s probably only 60 years’ fertility left in the soil is a real worry if we’re not addressing it.

So we’re very much about soil health, advocating for regenerative agriculture, but also regenerative veggie growing in your own backyard.”

Food is Free is also contributing to sustainability in other ways.

“It eliminates food waste, which is a really big problem … because we compost a lot of people’s food scraps so that then goes into the garden beds to nurture our soil, to grow the food, to nurture our people,” Ridsdale said.

“[Food is Free laneways] are really impactful and … it can be as big or as small as you want it to be.”

She’s grateful for the support of her local council, which has allowed the project to flourish. Soon after Food is Free was founded, the City of Ballarat contacted Ridsdale to ask how they could support the budding project.

“When they gravitated towards our project and realised the impact, they wanted to enhance it further and said, how can we help? And I cheekily said I would love access to the land across the road that’s around a footy oval that no one’s using, where we could grow more food … and impact more and have more people be able to come and attend workshops. We’d very much outgrown the space in the laneway. That was five years ago!” she explained.

“It’s like the wildest dream, just this crazy little idea that really does put emphasis on from little things, big things grow.”

The new green space was established with financial support from the Victorian government, which allowed the Food is Free team to build garden beds out of recycled materials and test out a series of workshops, which went “gangbusters”, Ridsdale said.

The workshops change people’s lives, lifting their self-esteem and giving them a sense of empowerment.

“That is literally my favourite thing about Food is Free – just seeing how the community reacts to being self-sufficient and realising it’s actually not that hard. That’s the inspiration we want to give people.”

Food is Free doesn’t have DGR status so it relies on grant opportunities. To keep the movement going, Food is Free sells merchandise and charges a small fee for workshops – although there is also a mechanism for those who can’t afford to pay to still come along for free.

“We try to make some other means of income. It’s really tricky. You speak to any not-for-profit and the number one question is, what’s your biggest barrier? It’s always money,” Ridsdale explained.

She feels fortunate to have such a passionate team around her. Food is Free’s team of volunteers is highly engaged, with a good retention rate. The organisation is currently seeking new board members after the long-serving chair stood down.

Ridsdale is passionate about the impact growing backyard veggies can have on the wider climate crisis, by reducing food miles and waste.

Growing fresh food in the backyard can also help people look after their health, and that of other members of the community who may not have access to three square meals a day through the act of sharing surplus food.

“Community has a lot of impetus to be able to help on a small scale to make a big scale solution,” Ridsdale said.

“I think we’ve all got a part to play and I think that’s the point of like; if you’re helping, [whether] micro or macro, it doesn’t matter. Everyone’s helping. If we leave it to government, unfortunately that’s really not going to be a solution. I know that they’re coming up with a lot of fabulous policies, but they’re the thinkers and the community are the doers.”

For those who want to get started, it’s as simple as putting veggies in your letterbox and posting about it on social media with the hashtag #FoodIsFree, she added.

For Food is Free itself, the next step is starting an urban food farm.

“It’s going to be very big. It needs to be funded. We’ve been talking to the powers that be,” Ridsdale said.

“It will be much, much bigger than the 30 bed garden presently at Green Space, with all sorts of education [opportunities] and hopefully some actual venues for schools to come and organisations to come.

“That’s the future, and it’s going to be massive.”