What are public food forests?

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Imagine a space in your downtown – no matter the size – where fruit is grown. Planners have intentionally planted woody, perennial plants as key components of a community food production system. That’s a public food forest.

Public food forests can vary in their design. An ideal design would use the vertical space of the forest well. Low shrubs with tall trees. Ground cover could be replaced with herbs.

Each species plays a different role in this type of agroecosystem. These multiple storied polycultures (i.e., growing multiple crops at once in the same space) can optimize yields in a sustainable and regenerative way.

A recent study found that many small towns were resistant to creating public food forests, and the authors made recommendations to overcome challenges. Shown here, a peach tree. Credit: Catherine J. Bukowski

Food forests are typically designed with permaculture principles in mind:

  • Minimizing outside inputs. The managers focus on rainfed systems, with no outside water needs. They use natural sources for nutrients, like compost. And in the design, the need for labor is minimized.
  • Maximizing biodiversity. Well-designed food forests plant a variety of species. This is called polyculture, and it creates a habitat that can host diverse plant, animal, and fungi species.

What results are more resilient food production systems that include the communities who steward them.

Public food forests exist on publicly owned or stewarded land. They are designed to be open to local residents to participate in their implementation and development. Long before a seed or seedling is planted in the ground, it is important that potentially affected communities agree on the missions and values of the food forest, how it will address community needs and build on existing assets, and who will care for the shared space. Only with the community’s investment in these edible landscapes will they thrive long-term.

Besides providing local sources of food and fiber for residents, food forests can enhance ecosystem services like:

  • increasing shade
  • increasing biodiversity
  • restoring wildlife and
  • restoring pollinator habitat
  • capturing water and assist in managing stormwater
  • reducing food insecurity
  • improving nutrition, and
  • providing jobs for community members.

Public food forests can provide several “services” to the community, in addition to providing food. These berry bushes, for example, have roots that help absorb water from heavy rains, reducing stormwater loads. They provide food to pollinators, improving biodiversity. Credit: Morguefile

While all are valuable, we wondered if these were the most compelling benefits of food forests on public land in the eyes of those who have a strong role in shaping their future—public officials.

Since media and scholarly attention on food forests have focused almost entirely on urban areas, we were especially curious about how small towns view food forests. We wanted to learn about the constraints and benefits related to their implementation. To learn about these perspectives, we surveyed mayors of towns in Virginia, USA, with less than 25,000 residents.

Challenges for towns to implement public food forests

Only 20% of towns that included food production systems in their plans included food-bearing trees and shrubs. (Most included vegetable gardens and annual crops). And the majority (80%) didn’t include municipal ordinances for implementing food forests. A plan like this would include where, what, and when to plant.

Our study found the mayors’ greatest perceived concern was how they would be maintained in the long-term. This included aesthetic and safety issues associated with downed fruits and obstructing visibility in rights-of-way. A lack of physical space and competing within these spaces with other, more profitable uses, were other barriers.

Overcoming the challenges

One strategy to overcome these challenges is to develop municipal ordinances that protect food forests from competing uses (i.e., provide secure land tenure), a clear requirement for woody perennial vegetation. Such policies can ensure that when the next mayor or council leaves, these spaces can continue to benefit the community.

Thyme can be grown as a ground cover in a public food forest, adding to the diversity of plants in the area. Credit: Morguefile

Town governments can also consider partnering with non-governmental organizations, land trusts, schools, or places of worship to address long-term maintenance concerns. This would be particularly helpful if local governments are unable to provide the staff and financial resources needed to support them.

Another strategy to increase food forest implementation is to emphasize the benefits that are aligned with those of traditionally valued green space. Most mayors were protective of conventional open spaces like parks and trails. They valued the associated opportunities for sports and recreation, social gathering, and community building. They also valued environmental beautification.

Our findings suggest that stressing these aspects of a food forest rather than just food production and ecological benefits could increase acceptance by elected officials or city/town staffers.

Public food forests invite residents and community members to enjoy, relax, and work in and around them. To increase the number of food forests, towns need to create policies that provide secure land tenure and a framework for implementation and maintenance. They need to encourage dialogue on how food forests will align with the community culture and goals. Tackling these items could improve the number of public food forests in small towns in Virginia, and likely the rest of the United States.

Answered by Sarah Coffey, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

This work was published in the journal Urban Agriculture and Regional Food Systems.

About us: This blog is sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America. Our members are researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply while protecting our environment. We work at universities, government research facilities, and private businesses across the United States and the world.

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