Lou Ridsdale: a love of gardening transformed into food for the community | Life and style


For two decades, she’s worked for music industry stalwarts such as Shock Records, Laneway festival, RRR and Meredith music festival, as well as running her own PR firm, Lance Rock publicity. Now Lou Ridsdale wears two very different hats, because she’s turned her hobby of gardening and self-sufficiency into a not-for-profit, Food Is Free.

This new aspect of her life began in 2014, when Ridsdale began putting the surplus vegetables she’d grown on display in the laneway adjoining her rental property, so passersby could take what they needed. Very soon, her modest Ballarat initiative gained traction, thanks in part to her publicity nous and enthusiastic signage, but also through word of mouth. Other people dropped off their produce and the volunteers started trickling in.

The initiative is part of a global movement. The US version of Food is Free started in Austin, Texas, in 2012, through community gardens in public spaces. Within two years, the idea had spread to 200 cities around the world, over 26 countries.

“Nine months into us setting up in Ballarat there were at least 50 that had popped up around the country, but around winter they started shutting down because it becomes trickier,” Ridsdale says. “You have to have that perfect storm of luring people to the site, but also getting them to participate.”

Ridsdale collaborated with US founder John VanDeusen Edwards on guidelines for newbies wanting to set up their own Food is Free chapters, but she encourages each community to find its own flavour. “It doesn’t have to be a regular thing,” she says. “You could even leave a box of apples at a bus shelter.”

Ballarat, in the central Victorian uplands, is a town that has suffered a lot of hurt, and the Ridsdale name has horrific connotations for many – Lou’s uncle, Gerald Ridsdale, was one of the priests responsible for serial abuse between the 1960s and 1980s, including of members of her own family.

Lou is a vocal member of Loud Fence, a support group for survivors of child sexual abuse in local religious institutions, and has joined crusaders in tying ribbons around the actual fences of local churches, but she says it’s gratifying to positively affect the community in other ways, too.

“This feels so positive – it brings a bright rainbow to pretty dark skies,” she says. “There was the sexual abuse issue over many generations, but Ballarat also has generational poverty and pressure in low socioeconomic areas. Food can be really political. I’m living in a town where only 6.4% of the population have the daily dietary intake of vegetables per day. That’s not good enough as far as I’m concerned.”

Gardening and the Ballarat Food is Free initiative have also brought redemption of a personal nature. “In Melbourne I was pickling in my own juices,” she laughs. “I was living the most debauched, disgusting lifestyle, not looking after myself, living in a one-bedroom apartment, drinking way too much and very stressed.” She moved first to Kyneton in the Macedon Ranges in 2010 “to start again”, and had a garden for the first time in years. “I realised that having a passion outside of the music industry was really good for my soul.”

She moved to Ballarat and carried on gardening. Disaster struck 18 months after setting up Food is Free, when Ridsdale’s landlord put the Ballarat property up for sale. At that stage she had volunteers on board, and the initiative was well established in the laneway. “Ballarat council have been nothing but positive,” she says, but she worried she could stretch her luck. Then a local businesswoman bought the house so that Ridsdale could continue renting and to secure the future of Food is Free in the laneway.

With home owners in the area increasingly subdividing their properties, garden areas are becoming non-existent. “With the help of a councillor Belinda Coates, I’ve persuaded council to allow people to have veggie boxes on their front lawns,” Ridsdale says. “Council wanted to charge them $150 each for a permit, but we renegotiated that it would be more preferable to have it as $15, or $5 concession. You shouldn’t put hurdles in front of people if they want to gain a bit of space for themselves.”

As of March 2018, there’s a second Food is Free site in Ballarat, called Green Space. It’s aimed at serving at-risk or marginalised community groups, to grow food together. There’s also a recycling centre for locals to drop off egg cartons, egg shells, paper bags, coffee grinds, newspapers and other organic waste, to be broken down into soil. More than 40 volunteers are now enlisted to care for the two sites.

Having worked on countless music tours, these days Ridsdale does her own tour of schools, which she has called – with a cheeky nod to The Ramones – Hey Hoe, Let’s Grow. And while, as she notes, you have to ask people eight times on average to get something done when you work for a not-for-profit, in general she marvels at how trouble-free her journey has been.

“We’ve never had an incident,” she says. “We have a saying in the laneway that nobody is judged on what they bring or take as long as they leave with a smile. I’ve met so many more people than I would have met before, and that doesn’t happen often in modern society. Usually it’s hard to strike up a conversation with a stranger, but the laneway has become a bit of a confessional box; I’ve often had tears in my eyes.”

That sense of community has flourished in even the most unlikely locals, as Ridsdale discovered when leaving her house one morning. “I could see a trail of spray paint from someone who had been tagging the street,” she remembers. “They graffitied the roller door of my carport, but they didn’t touch the laneway at all – they just passed it and carried on with the next fence. I love that there’s that strange kind of respect.”



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