Food forests can bring climate resilience, better health, and tasty produce to city residents

Having an abundance of locally-sourced foods in the community is important on many levels.
Food forests mimic the structure and function of a natural forest ecosystem. DepositPhotos

In the United States, there are over 6,500 rural and urban areas where residents have limited access to stores that sell affordable, nutritious food. Living in these places, sometimes dubbed “food deserts”, can lead to poor diet and associated health risks. However, unlike deserts, the lack of access to healthy food in communities does not occur naturally. They developed over time as a result of racially discriminatory policies and systematic disinvestment.

Given the increase in food insecurity in urban areas, some cities have begun experiments with edible landscapes to address food insecurity. By working together to grow a “food forest,” community members can increase their access to local food sources.

Food forests, or edible forest gardens, are a type of agroforestry system that “mimic the structure and function of a natural forest ecosystem, but are designed to produce food, medicine, fiber, and other products for human use,” says Mikaela Schmitt-Harsh, an associate professor at James Madison University whose research focuses on the social-ecological dynamics of urban forests. 

[Related: How to eat sustainably without sacrificing your favorite foods.]

The first public food forest in the US—the Dr. George Washington Carver Edible Park in North Carolina—opened in 1997. As of 2018, there are more than 70 food forests in public spaces across the country.

Schmitt-Harsh says different layers of vegetation—like trees, shrubs, herbs, and ground covers—all work together to “create a sustainable and diverse food production system.” For example, a food forest could be composed of tall trees like chestnut or walnut as the canopy layer and apple or persimmon trees as the sub-canopy layer. Beneath them can lie currant bushes like elderberry or spicebush, along with edible herbs and mushrooms. Ground cover, medical roots, and climbing plants are also included. “You can swap out any of these selections for your favorite nut trees, fruit crops, and herbs to make your own system,” says Schmitt-Harsh.

Food forests may be grown on private properties, vacant lots, parks, or other open spaces in otherwise urban environments. This helps residents by forming a food production system within the community. The forests, which are typically at least 1/8 of an acre, can be critical in areas where local, fresh foods are inaccessible or unaffordable, says Sheila K. Schueller, ecosystem science and management lecturer at the University of Michigan.

Schueller says food forests don’t just give people access to fresh and nutritious fruits, nuts, and produce, but also empower neighborhoods by increasing food security and sovereignty and the sense of community. Moreover, connecting people with the source of their food may raise awareness about “the benefits of sustainable forms of agriculture and the value of local in-season foods over distantly-sourced or unsustainably-grown foods,” she adds.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation

The ecologically diverse system of food forests benefits the environment in so many ways, says Schueller. For instance, the structural complexity of the different layers can attract perching and nesting birds, while the variety of blooms expands the habitat of pollinators. Deeper root systems also improve water retention. Lastly, the vegetation provides shade and improves temperature regulation, which is ideal in hot cities or arid climates. All of these improve resilience in the face of changing climates and extreme weather events, says Schueller.

[Related: Paleo and keto diets aren’t great for you or the planet, study says.]

Food forests also help mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.

Since they have trees, shrubs, and perennial plants, Schueller says food forests can store more carbon in their biomass and the soil compared to other food systems or land use such as annually tilled crops or lawns.

“This increased vertical layering of plants means that more carbon is sequestered per area, and especially the woody vegetation stores more carbon long term,” she adds. “Food forests are not annually tilled like most crops and have deep root systems, so they can store a lot of carbon in the soil and below-ground vegetation.”

Having an abundance of locally-sourced foods in the community minimizes greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as well, particularly those caused by transportation across the food chain. A 2021 Nature Food study previously estimated that food transportation contributed around 4.8 percent of the GHG emissions of the global food system, but newer research suggests it accounts for about 19 percent instead. In general, Schmitt-Harsh says food forests can reduce the food miles traveled, or the distance from where the food was grown to where it’s eaten.

The interest and advocacy for food forests have grown alongside other local food movements, like farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs. They are all experiencing an upward trend in urban and suburban landscapes as communities explore ways to bring food production closer to home, says Schmitt-Harsh. 

A 2017 Public Health Nutrition study on low-income adults’ perceptions of farmers’ markets and CSA programs found that residents of urban, affordable housing communities are motivated to eat healthily, but they cannot afford them. Accepting benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would increase their access to healthy foods and reduce health risks.

“Some of the most successful community food forests are those that embrace a grassroots approach and engage multiple stakeholders in promoting community building and food literacy,” says Schmitt-Harsh. 
If you want to grow a food forest in your area, try getting in touch with potential stakeholders like local governments, community-based groups, academic institutions, and non-profit organizations that can mobilize community members to participate in civic activities. Who knows, there might be an organization near you already.