Some may see Andrew Barker as a greenie who has eaten one too many organic lentil. He has different views, and yes, his pet cat was from a rescue home. But he is highly intelligent, and his incredibly simplistic theory on how we should survive in this world is literally food for thought.
There are three basic elements we need for our bodies to survive, and the first two are free – air and water. The third is food, and he struggles to understand why that should not also be free.
When Andrew (pictured) lived in Middleton 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. He doesn’t claim ownership of this philosophy, but the concept under his Grow Free banner is evolving at an incredible rate.
Over the past 12 months the Grow Free membership – and it is free – has risen from 3000 to 15,000, and from 20 little carts to 160 across South Australia, and weekly increasing numbers in Victoria and Western Australia. Now it is growing overseas.
Of course, the question begs: we should know of the great need for something like this for the needy, but being the Homo sapiens we are wouldn’t the greedy take the lot? After all, this is free food we’re talking about.
Andrew smiles and says if anyone does take everything to the last leaf they must need it. Again, he’s different because he sees the better side in us; he raises the possibility someone clearing the rack may have a big family or is supporting the homeless. He cannot comprehend taking food and then throwing it away.
Andrew, 34, now lives in a cottage behind the historic homestead Glenbarr in Strathalbyn with his rent paid in gardening hours. He left school in Red Cliffs, 16km south of Mildura, and became an accountant. “I wanted to impress a girl because I was good at numbers, but it didn’t work,” he confesses. He studied marine biology, and took on a PhD in geothermal energy. We said he was intelligent.
“Everything changed for me in 2011 when I was living on a farm in a tent with friends at Meadows during my last year of uni,” Andrew said.
“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 be really 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 so 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.
“Even the fruit and veg didn’t look sterile. 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 up to the check-out and saw a mother with a baby in the trolley. It was full of just 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 doesn’t know it. There is no awareness and not enough education about our food and what it means for growing bodies.”
Andrew is currently unemployed, but not by choice. He’s not frightened to work. He survives on next to nothing and grows and eats the healthy foods he needs. “Sometimes I literally jump out of bed at 6am because I just love what I do,” he said.
The Grow Free movement captured attention last year when Andrew was invited to do a TED talk in Sydney, 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 shouldn’t all these basic necessities 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. If we were we would be up in arms and there would be riots. 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 canned home brand, nutrition-deficient food or nothing.
“I am now studying complementary medicines because I find it interesting, and it is a good complement to what I am doing here. If you are eating good, healthy organic foods – there are so many herbs, spices and roots that have medicinal qualities – then it may be rare that you get sick. You can build your immune system up.”
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. I always keep saying to myself it’s a total mystery; I don’t know. People see me as a part of them. If they feel impressed by this generosity it’s only because it is latent in them and myself and others are helping to bring it out in themselves.
“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 whom we may not have had contact with before.
“The focus 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.”
For information on how to set up a Grow Free cart, and where to find one visit: www.growfree.org.au