Communities across the United States are establishing food forests, also known as forest gardens, to ecologically grow perennial and annual foods, herbs and medicinals for free public harvesting.
by Catherine Bukowski
Community food forests serve multiple educational roles such as introducing people to alternative agriculture, forest ecology, food security issues, social justice, and food literacy. They are also a great way for people to take an active role in shaping their local landscape and expressing values about how food is grown and who has access to it.
In 1997, Asheville, NC was the first city to give permission to a local non-profit organization to establish a community food forest on under-utilized Parks and Recreation property. The non-profit promoted public participation in shaping the project from the very start. Public meetings created a space for community members to give input on layout, design, and species selection for the food forest. Eighteen years later the food forest now looks like a small urban park and is known as the Dr. George Washington Carver Edible Park. Yet the trees and vegetation in the park provide much more than a shady, tranquil location to relax and recreate. There are apples, pears, jujubes, peaches, plums, figs, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, hardy kiwis and muscadine grapes among others species that are available to the public to harvest for free. Surprisingly, an idea that sounds so appealing took more than ten years before more community food forests started appearing in cities.
In 2008 and 2009 at least four different community food forests were started in the urban locations of San Francisco, CA; Pittsburgh, PA; Portland, OR; and Seattle, WA. Seattle’s Beacon Hill Food Forest received the most publicity of all of them due to the size and location on public land whereas the others were located on vacant lots. The media coverage of Beacon Hill spurred many other communities to start taking action to establish their own food forests. As of 2015 there are over fifty community food forest initiatives throughout the country. Projects typically start at the grassroots level and bring together a mix of stakeholders (community members, local government agencies, organizations, and universities) to form partnerships, create shared vision, acquire land, navigate policies, and establish and maintain the site. Food forests are an attractive model for food production in areas where people need multifunctional landscapes because green space is limited.
CFFs incorporate elements of both urban agriculture, particularly in the form of community gardens, and urban forestry such as recreational parks. Essentially, food forests are a form of urban agroforestry that combines fruit and nut trees with perennial and annual crops grown together in close proximity to mimic the multiple vertical layers of vegetation found in a forest ecosystem such as the root layer, ground cover, grasses or herbs, bushes, vines, smaller trees and larger canopy trees. The concept is that by mimicking the plant communities, functional roles and structural layout of a forest ecosystem, the level of maintenance and external input will decrease over time as the system becomes self-sufficient similar to forests. Combinations of plants are selected that will produce food, fiber, forage or other goods during different times of the year so production is ongoing according to climate conditions.
These communal food production projects experiment with a wide range of perennial species in terms of varieties that are best adapted to the local region as well as combinations of plants that work well together or not. They are testing grounds for plant vegetative material and some sites are using the food forests as local seed banks to breed locally acclimated plants that produce seed for home gardens or small farms. Community members collaborate on finding innovative solutions to production and management issues. In Santa Barbara, CA where drought is a recurring issue, the community food forest has become the experimental grounds for alternative methods of water collection such as capturing fog from the ocean. Many species considered specialty crops on farms, and often produced in agroforestry systems, are gaining popularity to include in food forests, such as elderberry, hazelnut, and pawpaws. Consequently, the communities engaged with food forests are a growing market interested in these food products and are learning the difficulties associated with perennial fruit and nut production. I have visited twenty-four community food forests across the US and have interviewed more than one person who feels they have a deeper understanding of the trials and tribulations farmers go through on a yearly basis to produce crops sustainably, ethically, and ecologically while confronting changing and unpredictable climate conditions.
While community food forests, at their current scale, will not solve local food security problems, they are a great educational resource for reconnecting urban populations to alternative methods of growing food and to specialty crops not found in community gardens. They help create a better understanding of what it takes to grow ecologically sound crops and the importance of experimenting with varietal species for improved flavor, pest control, and yields. Additionally, they bring people together to build a community with shared values on the food system. I believe as these initiatives grow in popularity there is potential to connect with local farmers to collaborate on vegetative propagation material, provide genetic banks for species diversity, and share risk on experimenting with growing methods that can be scaled-up for the homestead or small farm level.
Catherine Bukowski is a PhD candidate at Virginia Tech in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation in Blacksburg, VA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source for more information: If you are interested in learning where community food forests are located throughout the United States and reading information relevant to this topic, visit Catherine’s website at www.communityfoodforests.com.