Vancouver-based urban farming network Sole Food Farms supplies the city with good food through social justice. The farm provides jobs and training for disadvantaged residents while also making use of the city’s vacant land.

Working with the multitude of challenges of growing in an urban environment, Sole Food has developed a system of raised, moveable planters that can be relocated. This not only protects plants from ground contaminants, but also allows for maximum project site mobility.

“We are faced with new challenges surrounding the Vancouver housing market. Our whole project is built upon the idea of these farms being moveable,” says Director of Operations Lissa Goldstein. As it often takes years for development projects to break ground, this has allowed Sole Food to take advantage of Vancouver’s underused spaces.

They are presently growing on a scale of four acres of land, spread across four sites within the city’s Eastside.

Growing change from within

In addition to rethinking underused land, Sole Food also tackles an underexploited labor market, hiring community members who may seem unfit for other jobs. “Our mandate is to provide employment to those with barriers. This involves being able to provide a flexible work environment in an accessible neighborhood,” says Goldstein. Many residents are very familiar with Sole Food Farms and most of their employment happens via word of mouth.

Co-founder Sean Dory has a long history with the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and was previously project manager of another social enterprise. Partnering with agricultural expert Michael Ableman, they were able to bring this social enterprise model to an urban farming platform.

The project is now in its seventh growing season since its launch in 2009. While there are currently many other urban farming initiatives within Vancouver, it is specifically Sole Food Farms’ social mission which makes the project stand out from the rest.

As the business emphasizes the intrinsic link between social and environmental welfare, the City of Vancouver has actively supported Sole Foods and its endeavors.

 

New spaces, new projects

Sole Food Farms currently leases two of its locations directly from the City of Vancouver. On one of these sites, and for the past three years, Sole Food director Michael Ableman has been working on his passion project: an orchard with more than 500 fruit trees.

The city recently announced plans to turn 8,000 to 10,000 square feet of the 28,000-square-foot plot into an affordable housing experiment. However, the city is very keen on keeping the orchard garden alongside the new housing.

“A community is not just a few modular houses dropped into place,” Ableman points out. “A community involves all kinds of things, not the least of which is some semblance of a natural environment, food, employment – all those things.” With the increasing issue of Vancouver’s housing market, unused urban land is becoming a hot commodity.

“We are much more focused on stabilizing sites and rebuilding,” says Goldstein. “Rather than expanding, we are trying to make good use of what we have.”

While Sole Food Farms has gotten the green light to stay at their current orchard garden site, their primary location will need to be relocated in 2017 with the teardown of the city’s viaducts. Their new destination is still unknown.

Sole Food Farms is currently working directly with the City of Vancouver to find possible spaces for their project.

city skyline vancouver
Sole Food’s mission aligns directly with Vancouver’s goals with its Greenest City 2020 Action Plan.
Photo: Michael Ableman

Achieving goals for a greener city

Since 2011, the City of Vancouver has been working on their Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, an ambitious set of goals put in place to make Vancouver the world’s greenest city by 2020.

The action plan includes several local food-specific goals like increasing the number of urban farms and orchards, as well as creating links between food, health, and poverty.

As Sole Food’s mission aligns directly with the goals for Greenest City, the farm has had consistent support from Vancouver’s mayor, Gregor Robertson. The mayor is known for his interest in green initiatives and has played a major role in the foundation of the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan.

When showing visitors around Vancouver, the mayor frequently makes stops at Sole Food to show off how they are contributing to the 2020 goals. Robertson is especially fond of the farm’s ability to repurpose vacant land while also stimulating the local economy: “Sole Food in particular are bringing a number of those pieces together by creating jobs in the city, creating local, healthy food, and doing it in an innovative way.”

Sole Food empoyees working in the farm
Sole Food are in their seventh growing season.
Photo: Sole Food

Select images are from Michael Ableman’s book Street Farm and are used with permission from the publisher (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016).