How food forests can help us build healthy, thriving, beautiful communities

Food forests, the short version

  • Access to healthy, affordable food is a major challenge in many urban environments, especially for low-income communities
  • Food forests are intentionally built food-growing ecosystems, built on the principles of permaculture, that can grow in the middle of cities.
  • They offer a model for providing sustainable, nutritious food for communities, while also creating beautiful public spaces and more green space.

Food forests, the longer version

While many of us are discovering the joys and value of home gardening and other local food sources, more and more, the poor and marginalized are without access to healthy, nutritious food. Too many – about 25% of Americans – live in food deserts. They eat whatever junk food they can get cheaply at the local convenience store, because that’s all that’s available. This diet leads to widespread obesity, diabetes, and other health concerns. It compounds the effects of poverty, decreasing productivity and earning potential and increasing health costs, among a host of other adverse effects.

Now, instead of these food deserts, imagine this instead.

Can you imagine how having plentiful, FREE, nutritious food would transform our communities? Well, that possibility isn’t too far off.

Food forests are an emerging approach for the new economy that are already popping up all over the world.

Credit: Molly Danielsson

In a time when access to food is limited and inequitable, food forests allow us to:

  1. Better ensure consistent access to healthy, local food for all
  2. Create an economy that utilizes and honors the brilliance of nature and ecosystems (rather than destroy it)
  3. Establish local, resilient food systems and build food security

So what are food forests?

Food forests (or forest gardening) are a gardening or land management technique that create a space – usually in an urban environment – entirely devoted to growing edible plants. Fruit treats, nut trees, root crops, and more all grow in one place. And they are all available for free to the surrounding community.

Because food forests are designed with ecology in mind (unlike most modern agricultural methods), they are naturally self-sustaining. They are literally active, full-fledged ecosystems in and of themselves. Because of this, they don’t require inputs or even much management. Once designed and planted, they grow on their own and produce a bounty of food every year.

The seven layers of every forest illustration
Permaculture a Beginner’s Guide, by Graham Burnett

Food forests are one example and manifestation of permaculture – a system of agricultural and social design principles centered on simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems. Food forests and permaculture are inherently sustainable; they create food systems that add value for humanity, yet also utilize and honor how ecosystems and the planet function naturally. Instead of recreating the wheel – and potentially causing a bunch of unintended consequences – they use tried-and-true practices known to work in harmony with the Earth.

Food forests in action

Food forests are popping up in urban environments all over the world. In Seattle, the Beacon Food Forest, for example, is a pioneer in American food forests. Sitting on 7 acres only a couple miles from downtown, the food forest includes an edible arboretum, berry patch, nut grove, community garden and more.  The Beacon Food Forest will become the largest foreagable space in the country.

The Forest relies on the principle of “ethical harvesting”. All members of the public are welcome to come to the Forest and take whatever they want – judging for themselves what is reasonable and appropriate. In this way, the Forest can become a critical part in the fight of hunger and making food access more equitable.

Beacon Food Forest from InterChange Media on Vimeo.

Why it matters

Food forests are one piece of the “new paradigm” of sustainability, equity, peace, and community that we are striving toward. In many ways, food forests encapsulate the core tenets of this movement. They:

  1. Are self-sustaining. They grow on their own with minimal oversight.
  2. Are restorative and life nurturing. As active ecosystems, they actually clean up and protect the environment and support biodiversity. Insects and other essential species flourish in food forests.
  3. Generate resilience and security. When you can get food from a forest next door (instead of food shipped across the world), you have a much more reliable and consistent source of food. When disaster strikes or the economy falters, where will you get your food?
  4. Undermine the power of money. Food forests show us that not every transaction in society must be an exchange of money. If we want food, we can buy it OR we can grow it ourselves. Perhaps we can extend this attitude to other aspects of our lives?
  5. Build community. Whole communities can utilize and rely on food forests. As such, food forests are a common investment and shared resource for community members. They can be the glue that brings people together.

Recommended reading

More of Tomorrow’s Possibilities

Peter Schulte

Peter Schulte is the Executive Director of Kindling. Peter is also Senior Digital Engagement Associate for the Pacific Institute and the UN Global Compact's CEO Water Mandate, connecting businesses to sustainable water practices. Peter holds a B.S. in Conservation and Resource Studies and a B.A. in Comparative Literature from University of California, Berkeley, and an M.B.A. in Sustainable Systems from Pinchot University. He lives in Bellingham, WA, USA with his wife, two sons, and cat. Learn more about Peter's store here.

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