Ron Finley, a self taught urban gardener from South Los Angeles, came to the annual EAT Stockholm Food Forum, where he was a keynote speaker with Bill Clinton and many others from the academic world to discuss food, health and sustainability.
Anyone who has seen his TED talk would agree that he is an energetic, inspiring and solution oriented speaker. Since then he has been ”walking the talk.” He is not the type of guy who to sit around complaining about problems and waiting for others to fix them. He is a doer. However, he is also waiting for the others. Waiting for them to join him in what he is doing.
For Ron, a Los Angeles Tech University educated fashion designer, it all started three years ago when he stopped accepting the fact he had to drive 45 minutes just to get an apple that was not ridden with pesticides. Instead, he started to plant vegetables and sunflowers in the public parkway in front of his house, right next to the street.
Ron, it is Mother’s day in Sweden today and we could not have picked a more symbolic day than this for our urban garden excursion in Stockholm. Doesn’t everything start with mother earth?
Yes, everything is connected to mother earth. We are all connected. She is the greatest artist and designer, showing us the beauty of all creatures, plants and foods every day in many different ways. Unfortunately, many of us have lost the connection to her and to the food we eat. When kids think that watermelons grow on trees and they don’t know what a tomato plant looks like, we need to teach them. If you dig in the soil together with them, plant the seeds, experience and understand where our food comes from it will result in reconnecting. Even reconnecting with each other.
Why are you in Stockholm?
I was invited here to tell everyone at the conference how I’m changing an unjust food system from the inside of the prison. The food prison. I am the guy who had a problem right outside my door and the problem needed to change. So, I’m here because I’m a “criminal”.
See, I planted some illegal stuff on the parkway in front of my house… No, no not the kind of illegal stuff you smoke. I planted the kind of illegal stuff you eat. I planted some carrots. Yes, carrots. And for this I became a wanted man.
The parkway is the piece of land in front of your house right before you get to the curb. The city has jurisdiction over the space but you must maintain it. For this act of criminal disobedience I was cited and threatened with jail time. Imagine that? “Yo bro, what you in for?” ”Carrots, yeah carrots, so back off!”
This is three years ago, what happened after that?
Through it all I stood strong. I stood my ground right next to a 12ft sunflower. With bees on one shoulder and humming birds on the other. With seeds of change in my left hand and freshly made composted soil in my right. And before long all those citations and threats were uprooted, new seeds were sown with the help of the community members and as of October 23, 2013- it’s is now legal to grow food on your parkway in the city of Los Angeles. Yes, the law was changed. Nobody voted against.
Amazing! What do you think is the key to make this change last?
To change a community you have to change the composition of the soil and gardening is the gateway to save the world.
The food system in America has been designed to slowly poison you with processed foods that in turn bring you to the doorsteps of medical clinics, designed to happily cut you open and prescribe more chemicals and drugs to keep your body propped up and adequately functioning, until you need more drugs.
People are not dying from starvation. They’re dying from abundance. Too much food that is NOT food.
I look outside my door and I see that my neighbourhood is being terrorized, occupied, poisoned and murdered by cheap fast food and drug companies. Then I get on a plane and realize, it’s the whole world, not just my village. But the world village.
So you are taking on the entire planet in order to fix the problem?
I want to plant the seed of innovation. Why shouldn’t everyone be exposed to beauty and art every day? I am an artist and the soil is my canvas.
I started the Ron Finley Project as a way to teach, that by working together you can feed yourself, your family and your neighbours. While at the same time creating beautiful landscapes and ecosystems, repairing dysfunctional food systems that are designed to keep you sick and oppressed.
This happens by bringing healthy food to communities where there is none. We show community members how to build their own sustainable food system by growing their own food.
In Sweden we are used to imported produce because of the cooler climate. Lots of it comes from greenhouses in Holland and countries even further away. It feels like we are also in a food prison here, but we haven’t really noticed yet. However, there is a small percentage of local and ecological produce available, at least seasonally.
Do you see a need for people to plant their own food in Sweden?
I can see some of this already happening in Stockholm. The community members did a great job at the abandoned railway “På Spåret” on Södermalm that became a fully functional community food garden. Another highlight of my visit here was to meet all the passionate tenants in Hökarängen where I finally got to take on the shovel myself again, following my purpose and help plant zucchinis, blueberries and more.
I particularly liked Rosendals trädgård on Djurgården where they have their own ecological plantations along with a bakery, restaurant, plant shop and courses. And at the same time they have a self-sustainable economy to make the whole thing work.
It is similar to what I am trying to create with what I call the Ron Finley HQ, an urban garden in South Central LA for which we are currently raising funds for. It will serve as an example of a well balanced fruit-and-veggie oasis.
This garden and gathering place will be a community hub, where people can learn about nutrition and join together to plant, work and unwind. We use gardening as a tool to teach people that you can redesign your own life.
Which brings me back to mother earth: We really need to take better care of our mother. If you take care of your mother she takes care of you. If you feed your mother she feeds you. And with the way we have been treating her she could use some tender love and care. This planet actually needs triage. Mother Nature doesn’t waste anything. We do.
Compost changed my life. It made me realize that nothing ever dies. Ever.