In Ballarat, Food Is Free

If you’re hooked into the local food scene, you’ve probably heard of Ballarat’s Food Is Free Laneway, where locals share excess produce from their gardens with anyone who wants or needs it.  We sat down with its founder, Lou Ridsdale, to talk about all things food and community.

Food Is Free laneway sign and herbs growing in a pot

Ballarat’s Food Is Free Laneway helps local residents share and support each other.

The Food Is Free Laneway was founded in October 2014. “That’s the official day that I had a bunch of friends come in the backyard,” Lou reminisces. “It was a nice sunny day, and we had a working bee and a barbecue.” For Lou, it was important to involve the community from the start.  “I didn’t want it to be just me,” she says.

Things got off to a slow start, with Lou simply sharing her own garden’s bounty.  Eventually other people caught on.  “After a few weeks someone reciprocated and left a bit of parsley,” Lou recalls. “And of course by the summer, everyone had bumper crops, so it really took off.”

Food Is Free Laneway’s Facebook page also spurred things on. Lou, who works as a publicist, has harnessed social media to spread the story far and wide.  While she says most regulars come from within a 5km radius, she’s also met people who’ve come up from Melbourne just to visit. “It’s becoming a bit of a tourist destination!” she laughs.

Lou Ridsdale of Food Is Free Laneway Ballarat sitting in her garden

Lou Ridsdale, who started the Food Is Free Laneway, chatted to us under the backyard walnut tree that supplied the laneway throughout the autumn.

The idea for the Laneway came from Lou’s habit of reading gardening websites, where she learned about the original Food Is Free Project in Austin, Texas.  She was also inspired by guerrilla gardeners like Ron Finley, who established veggie gardens in one of Los Angeles’ urban food deserts.

“Although there’s guerrilla gardening everywhere, a lot of them are just individual vigilantes. These guys really seemed to get that it should be community oriented,” Lou says. “I like the idea that he spoke at a street level. That really resonates with what we’re doing here.”

Making a difference to local food security

Food Security: when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life. – World Health Organization

Does Food Is Free make much difference to Ballarat residents who lack access to fresh food? Lou compares Food Is Free to how some other food charities operate: “They hand out gift vouchers to go to the supermarket, which makes people make bad food choices, because the supermarkets sell so much junk.  While we’re not a food desert, for many people the choices are constrained.  I like the idea that people can come here and take what they want and it’s free and accessible.”

baskets of feijoas and persimmons at the food is free laneway, ballarat

Feijoas and persimmons are just two varieties of backyard fruit you won’t find in many supermarkets.

As for the outcomes, Lou describes what she’s seen over the 18 months the Laneway’s been running.  While she prefers to let visitors browse in peace, Lou has got to know some of the regulars very well.  She describes one drug- and alcohol-affected couple who’ve been coming for a long time, whose health has improved as they’ve started growing their own veg. “Some of that can be attributed to what’s happening in the Laneway,” Lou says. “I’ve definitely seen it impact people’s lives.”

The Laneway also helps build community connections for people who are isolated, a vital component of health and wellbeing especially as we get older. Lou’s elderly neighbour is a regular at the Laneway.  “We’re now ingrained in each other’s lives. She talks to all the people who come along and you can tell it really has improved her life. She’s out and about a lot more.”

Challenges along the way

The Laneway hasn’t been without its challenges, though.  In 2015, Lou’s landlord decided to sell the property, putting Lou at risk of having to move herself, and Food Is Free, to another location. “I was determined to do it somewhere else if the house sold. I would have taken it with me wherever I moved,” she said.  However, in the end she didn’t need to.  A supporter bought the property, so that Lou could continue to run the Laneway.

logo of the city of ballarat's partners in health plan

Healthy eating and food security form part of the council’s Partners in Health Plan. Read it online.

There was also the risk that the City of Ballarat would shut the Laneway down.  Lou recalls the day a woman from the council came to her door. “I’d been waiting for this day and I had the speech all prepared. But within five seconds she was saying the council supported it, and asking how they could help.”

The City has given Food Is Free Laneway a patch of land adjacent to the Western Oval, at the corner of Eyre and Ripon Streets, to expand into.

Deputy Mayor Belinda Coates is a huge supporter of the Food Is Free Laneway, describing it as a “terrific model”.  She describes how Food Is Free fits into Ballarat’s wellbeing strategies, especially around healthy eating and food security, and that she’d like the council to support similar initiatives across Ballarat.

Dreams for the future

strawberry blossom and fruit growing in recycled guttering at the food is free laneway

Strawberries grow in recycled guttering.

So what does the future hold for Food Is Free in Ballarat?  It recently incorporated as an association, and has a new committee who will help Food Is Free grow.

Lou wants to run workshops about growing food and cooking it, and to reach out to other parts of the Ballarat community, including groups serving Ballarat’s most marginalised people.

“Eventually what I’d love to do is have Food Is Free gardens set up in prisons, with the food going into women’s shelters. People visiting hospitals – there’s nothing to do, and you know how good gardens are for health and wellbeing.  To be able to step outside and spend time in the garden, even if it’s just five minutes, pop a silverbeet seedling in the ground. Hospital food shouldn’t be the way it is. They should have gardens there!”

“Right now funding is our main hurdle. We don’t have any. We desperately need someone with legal and financial experience to be on our board and help us with those areas. On a local level, we’ll need to address volunteer retention.  Keeping volunteers active and interested. We’re hoping to have volunteer workshops and committees where they can get to know each other, rather than just do their shift and take off. ”

I asked what other contributions Food Is Free is looking for, apart from funding and, obviously, bringing food to share.

A view down the food is free laneway.

A view down the laneway.

“If you can’t afford to bring us something, bring your veggie scraps. Something as simple as that. There are many options where you don’t have to put your hand in your pocket.  We love recycling: bring your broken eggshells, your spent coffee grounds, bring empty jars or whatever resources you have around. Horse manure. Whatever you can contribute will be appreciated.”

She points out that even small actions count, and make a difference.

“Two sounds I love the most: the turning of the handle on the compost, or the seed toolbox being opened and shut. They’re both very squeaky and I keep them that way for a reason, because it helps me remember that people care.  When people do things like that they’re small acts, but it’s a village coming together.”

How to start your own Food Is Free

Lou’s three tips for people who want to start a Food Is Free initiative in their local area:

  1. Start small and slowly, no sudden movements. Let it evolve.
  2. Get volunteers. Don’t do it all yourself – include the community from the get-go.
  3. It needs to be well maintained, to keep the community and the council on side and avoid problems with rotten food and pests.


Please Help Yourself - painted sign at Food Is Free Laneway Ballarat

Please help yourself – and each other!

Where to find Food Is Free

Facebook: foodisfreelanewayballarat

Instagram: foodisfreelaneway

Address: Warrior Place, near the corner of Ripon St South, Ballarat Central VIC 3350

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2 Responses

  1. Carol Woodley says:

    Last week I met a lady from out of town. She had 2 appointments and an hour to kill in between, so she came to the lane and chatted with everyone (well me), admired the produce and the plants then went off to her next appointment happily. There are so many ways to share. Carol (volunteer).

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