There are older, more established food sharing movements in the City of Ballarat than the Food is Free Laneway. None however have made their mark in the minds of the town’s populace in such a short time or with such clearcut messages of goodwill and inclusivity as the little street more properly (and perhaps aptly) known as Warrior Place, stretching between two blocks in suburban Redan.
Once upon a time, before the introduction of sub-division approvals on single house blocks and the rise of housing estates with dwellings jammed cheek-by-jowl against each other, eaves almost kissing, to placate developers’ greed, substantial portions of suburban backyards were routinely turned over to food production.
The vegetable patch, rows of fruit trees and chook run provided sustenance and sometimes an income for households, as well as educating generations of children about the fickle nature of growing vegetables, the need for attention to weather and watering, and cycle of life and death. There was little point in naming a favourite chicken if its fate was a future Sunday morning rendezvous with the axe.
The Laneway is both recreation and response to that disappearing world, writ large across the community and with a more pointed political stance. There are more than 60 dedicated volunteers who work for the Laneway’s four committees in Ballarat. The main committee is incorporated as a not-for-profit organisation; other coordinate volunteers, artwork and fund-raising.
Lou Ridsdale is the first to admit the Food is Free movement is political.
“We’re focussed on marginalised and at risk persons,” says Ridsdale.
“To provide a space for people to come down, with no judgement, it’s great to have that opportunity. We are targeting people who are in need here. There’s a a lot of people who come through the Laneway who you know damn well are really struggling.”
The principle of Food is Free is elementary: give what you can, take what you need.
That might mean bringing surfeit produce from a home garden, or dropping off no-longer needed tools or pots.
More importantly it involves sharing experience, be that gardening, community or life.
Ginelle Polanske’s energy is palpable. The photography teacher and Handygirl Australia construction expert also describes herself as a full-time mum to two little kids.
What we do in the Laneway is a bit cheeky and naughty. It’s probably a little bit illegal – but that’s the point. To see what it’s become in those three years has blown my mind. It’s way beyond whatever I anticipated.Lou Ridsdale
She moves at a purposeful speed around the Laneway and its new second site diagonally opposite at the city’s Western Oval, in the land surrounding the Ballarat Band Hall. She points at the new compost tumbler project, how all the scrap bins have been arranged, where vegetable gardens will be dug.
All this from a chance wander down the Laneway with her daughter in her pram.
“I was going to pick up my son from the kinder across the road; I literally ran into Lou, into boxes of stuff,” Polanske says.
Being on fruit duty at the kindergarten meant access to lots of leftovers, and as she says, things “just kind of aligned.”
“I started volunteering. My little boy was four, and we started watering the plants in the garden and we’ve sort of been involved since then.”
Polanske grew up in Stawell and Sale, and has lived in Ballarat for 14 years. She wants her children to have the right to be able to see and taste fresh fruits and vegetables grown locally – and how the community can be involved in that system.
“My son is at Urquhart Park (Primary School, involved in Food is Free) and they have a fantastic kitchen garden program, but it's only once a week for one semester. We really want the kids to see where your food is coming from, rather than the local supermarket.”
In just 12 months following Ridsdale’s inspiration upon hearing of the original incarnation in Austin, Texas, Food is Free had spread from Ballarat to Bendigo, out to Castlemaine and Ararat. There have been manifestations in eastern Victoria and in the suburbs of Melbourne.
“Creswick, Brown Hill, Smythesdale… there was one in Rokewood,” says Ridsdale.
“I think across Australia at one point there were 50 or so set up.”
The movement has made Lou Ridsdale both something of a celebrity and a captive to its success.
She’s been the subject of countless interviews with newspaper, radio and television, and has a reputation as the conscience of her home town. But she rejects the idea it’s taken a toll on her life.
“It’s on my doorstep, so sometimes you feel as if your privacy is a bit compromised,” she says.
But the knowledge that she knows her neighbours, her community and her city so much better than she did before is her balm. Everybody eats, says Ridsdale, and everybody gets together over food.
“Sometimes it’s very hard to make friendships and make connections, but if there’s a common cause, whether it be over food or cooking or gardening or whatever floats your boat, it’s amazing to see people come together.
“What we do in the Laneway is a bit cheeky and naughty. It’s probably a little bit illegal – but that’s the point. That space was not being used for anything. To see what it’s become in those three years has blown my mind. It’s way beyond whatever I anticipated. And there are great plans for the future.”