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Food Forests: Making Cities More Food Secure

A food secure world is a world in which all people can easily access sufficient amounts of nutritious food to live long and healthy lives. In order to turn food security from a dream into a reality, we must make a number of changes to our economic and social policies and behaviors. For one, in order to be food secure, all people must earn a living wage, which today’s minimum wages fall far short of. For another, we must drastically reduce food waste. Because food production requires water, we must also make ourselves water secure by reducing water waste and by increasing our reliance on rain and greywater systems.

At Sustainable Food Center, we also believe that a food secure world also requires a robust local food system. Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of weather extremes, including drought, floods and record heat and cold spells, all of which hinder the ability of farmers to grow food. By developing local food systems, we minimize the distance food must be transported to reach consumers, reducing food-related carbon emissions. Equally important are local food producers – be they urban farmers or community or backyard gardeners – as they tend to be more connected to community than agribusinesses. As a result of this connection, local food growers tend not to prioritize profit at the expense of the health of their communities and the environment. Instead, they try to find ways to profit while cultivating healthy communities, making them more likely to use sustainable, safe agriculture practices and to pay their employees livable wages.

As cities grow and densify, however, the space available for local food production shrinks. What is more, not every urban dweller wants to be a farmer or even a food gardener. This raises an important question: Is it really possible to eat local and meet most of our caloric and nutrient needs? The answer is yes, if we adopt a multi-pronged approach to local food production. In addition to urban farms and community and backyard gardens, we must fill our cities with food forests.

A food forest is an agricultural system that mimics a woodland ecosystem by substituting edible trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals for non-edible forest plants. Fruit and nut trees make up the canopy, while berry shrubs, edible perennials and annuals make up the understory. Perhaps the world’s oldest form of agricultural land use, food forests originated in tropical areas, where they are still used today. They utilize companion planting to provide natural mulch as well as heat and cold protection, conserve water, build the soil, and control diseases pests. The combination of companion planting with plant diversity makes food forests the world’s lowest-maintenance, most resilient, and most productive agricultural systems, capable of meeting the caloric and nutrient needs of large numbers of people on relatively smalls amounts of space and with relatively miniscule amounts of labor.

Since the 1980s, gardeners have been applying food forests practices to temperate climates, and today, food forests are springing up in cities throughout the United States. (http://www.beaconfoodforest.org/) Austin is no exception. Just last month, Austin residents celebrated the groundbreaking of the Festival Beach Food Forest (FBBF) (http://festivalbeach.org/) by planting fruit and nut trees. FBBF, Austin’s first food forest, has been in the works since 2012, when a number of local organizations and residents formed a food forest coalition and began meeting with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. After much door-knocking and many meetings, the coalition received a city grant of 2.43 acres of land to turn into an edible landscape. Since then, organizations including YardFarm, the Austin Permaculture Guild, Earth Repair Corps, Fine Southern Gentlemen, Popmolar Creative, and Sustainable Food Center have worked to ready the site for planting by raising funds, organizing community workdays, and building a stormwater wetland filtration system.

When complete, the Festival Beach Food Forest will be open to the public, making fresh fruit and vegetables part of the daily experience of neighbors and visitors enjoying the park. In order to assist harvesters, the site will contain educational signage to help people know what is available to eat and when. An inspiring project, FBFF still has a long way to go before it is complete, and its success will rely on the efforts of Austin residents. In order to support the development of Austin’s first food forest, visit FBFF’s website (http://festivalbeach.org/), sign up for the forest’s newsletter, and join community members at the next workday.

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