Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Move Over, Community Gardens: Edible Forests Are Sprouting Up Across America

[Smithsonian] ​Earlier this summer, Carol LeResche got the phone call she’d been waiting for: A resident of Sheridan, Wyoming, was picking zucchini at Thorne Rider Park. “It’s exactly what we hoped would happen when we put in the food forest,” explains LeResche, the park’s food forest coordinator.
In May, the Powder River Basin Resource Council in Sheridan received a $3,500 grant from the Wyoming Department of Agriculture to turn a former BMX park into an edible landscape where all of the fruits, vegetables and nuts are free for the taking. U
nlike some parks with strict “no picking” policies, or parks where foraging is permitted but plantings emphasize aesthetics over edibles and just a fraction of the species can be consumed, food forests are designed to provide bountiful crops that residents are encouraged to harvest. And although there are no solid statistics on the number of food forests—one website that maps the locations of these “forest gardens” lists just 63 sites across the U.S.—the concept appears to be taking root.
At Thorne Rider Park, zucchini are the first vegetables to ripen in the brand new food forest; as the other edibles mature, LeResche hopes residents will dig up potatoes for supper, gather raspberries to make jam or snack on ripe figs plucked straight from the trees. “We think it’s important to put public food in public spaces,” she says.
Food forests may seem like a spin-off of community gardens, but there are distinct differences. Residents often have to pay to rent plots in community gardens, invest in the seeds and devote the labor required to maintain their plots—which can be a burden for low-income families who are strapped for cash and time. In contrast, food forests are funded through grants and, until the forests are self-sustaining, volunteers handle the labor; all hungry residents have to do is show up and pick their fill.
Food forests also provide different kinds of fresh produce than community gardens, emphasizing perennials like fruit and nut trees and berry bushes over annual vegetables. Despite the differences, Rachel Bayer, director of programs for Project Learning Tree, a program of the American Forest Foundation, believes both are important for addressing food deserts. “It’s important to grow a diversity of fruits and vegetables,” she says. “Food forests aren’t better or worse than community gardens; both have their place in urban communities.”
Food forests also offer environmental benefits, providing essential forest canopy that is lacking in urban areas, helping to minimize the heat island effect and providing  community gathering spaces where residents can participate in tours and classes or relax among the fruit trees. Read More