By Ashley Porter
On Saturday mornings in my small home town, the locals would meet in the main street to swap or give away the excess veggies and fruit from their gardens. It was a sensible, generous and social activity.
Andrew Barker has taken that concept to the next level with his very simple theory that food should be free.
Our bodies need three basic elements to survive. The first two – air and water – are free. The third – food – should also be free, according to Andrew.
He doesn’t claim ownership of this philosophy, but the concept under his Grow Free banner is evolving at an incredible rate. Grow Free facilitates sharing, encouraging people to leave excess homegrown produce and seedlings at a registered cart. Anyone can grab what they need; swapping is encouraged but not necessary.
Over the past year, Grow Free membership – and it is free – has risen from 3000 to 15,000 across South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia. Now it is growing overseas with communities as far flung as the United States, Netherlands and Iceland getting behind the cause.
When Andrew lived in Middleton in South Australia in 2013, he set up a cart laden with free food – fresh local fruit and vegetables, plus a few jams and jars filled with goodies – and a sign, “Take what you need and give what you can”.
Of course, the question begs: wouldn’t the greedy just take the lot?
Andrew smiles and says if anyone does take the lot then they must need it.
He sees the better side in us all, raising the possibility that anyone who clears the cart may have a big family or is supporting the homeless. He cannot comprehend why anyone would take food if they didn’t need it.
Now 34, Andrew lives in a caretaker’s cottage at the Glenbarr Camp and Conference Centre in Strathalbyn, near Adelaide. He looks after the property in return for accommodation, propagates seedlings, grows fruit and vegetables, and leads a number of benevolent initiatives.
The Grow Free mission took hold in 2011.
When Andrew left school in Red Cliffs, near Mildura in Victoria, he became an accountant. “I wanted to impress a girl and I was good at numbers, but it didn’t work,” he confesses. He then studied marine biology, and took on a PhD in geothermal energy.
“Everything changed for me in 2011 when I was living on a farm in a tent with friends at Meadows (in the Adelaide Hills) during my last year of uni.
“We were on 10 acres covered in fruit trees, nuts and berries, and we turned two acres into this veggie paradise. We had so much stuff there … chooks, ducks.
“I got to see what food can really be like. Every meal we had was literally on the plant minutes beforehand. Lots of people came and went; some were really passionate about food and loved cooking. We had all this amazing produce.
“My change of attitude about food really started for me when one day we went into a supermarket for the first time in a year. My eyes were popping out of my head walking up and down the aisles because I saw what other people were buying and eating.
“I was used to eating big, chunky warm tomatoes and I saw the ones in the supermarket – they looked like they were made by a machine. Spring onions should have dirt in their roots, but they didn’t here. Down the next aisle were the processed foods.
“I was with a friend at the time and we were saying, ‘That’s not food, that’s not food, that will probably kill a child, that’s poisonous.’ We were serious.
“We got to the checkout and saw a mother with a baby in the trolley. The trolley was full of soft drink and sugary breakfast stuff and we realised, wow, she doesn’t know that none of that is real food. She was setting her little one up for a lower life expectancy or sickness, but she didn’t know it. There is not enough education about our food and what it means for growing bodies.”
The Grow Free movement captured attention last year when Andrew was invited to give a TED talk in Sydney, (TED is a media organisation that posts talks online for free distribution, under the slogan, ‘Ideas worth spreading’.)
“I spoke about the idea and history behind Grow Free; why we are trying to make food free and healthy,” Andrew said. “It was about looking at things with new eyes, how the basic necessities we need to live are air, food and water. I asked why all these basic necessities shouldn’t be free. Should we have to pay to be alive on this planet?
“I see paying for basic food similar to being charged for oxygen. The fact we have had to pay for food for so long – thousands of years – is considered normal.
“Even in our own little communities, there are people living on the streets, people and families who can’t afford good healthy meals for their children. They are resigned to having to buy junk food. There is no room to move here – it’s either buy nutrition-deficient food or nothing.”
Andrew is now studying complementary medicines – “a good complement to what I am doing here”, he says. If you are eating good, healthy organic foods – there are so many herbs, spices and roots that have medicinal qualities – you can build up your immune system.”
Andrew said his family thought he was crazy when he started his Grow Free movement; the whole idea of giving something away for nothing.
“We still come up against people who see it as naïve or very airy-fairy… It will never happen they say. Some are offended by the idea.
“I know people may think I am weird, and I think all the time about who am I and what I am about. If people feel impressed by this generosity it’s only because it is latent in them, and myself and others are helping to bring it out.
“People connect with this idea because they realise we don’t have to be self-centred; we don’t have to make life all about me and my close ones; it can be about community and helping others.
“We give away seedlings quite regularly, and we are going to have cooking workshops on things like fermenting foods and how to grow your own sprouts. We want people to find that passion in food too.
“It can be a whole journey from a seed to a plant to a lovely big meal, or seeing what your neighbours are growing, and what’s on the local sharing cart near your house. We are using food as a medium to get back with each other and knowing who lives down the street, people with whom we may not have had contact before.
The focus, Andrew says, is on food and health, “but then there is this undercurrent of friendship and connection, going over to people’s houses and seeing if they need a hand with something.
“Am I crazy? Maybe. I just like to see good in people and what life is supposed to be about. It’s about eating healthy food and it’s free to grow.”
* Anyone interested in becoming a ‘cart steward’ should go to the Grow Free Facebook page for information and advice. Cart locations are registered on the Facebook page and anyone is free to leave their surplus home-grown produce for others. There are just two rules for those taking part – the goods must not be bought and must be free for others to take.
Could you start a cart?