Speak out for urban food forests

File photo

Food forests — if you haven’t yet heard of them, you will.

The concept is best known in connection with permaculture, which goes beyond organic growing to create landscapes that exist in harmony with nature.

Designed to include nut- and fruit-producing trees and shrubs, as well as many other edible and pollinator-friendly plants, food forests are not only interesting and enchanting. They provide food for people and wildlife. They also make if possible for people, particularly urban dwellers, to see up close how food is grown and experience the joy of picking something and eating it.

Heck, they may even inspire some to add edible plants to their home gardens.

For all of those reasons and more, many cities around the country — and the world — have opted in the last 10 years or so to turn vacant city lots and patches of parks into food forests and community orchards. Those cities include London; Victoria, British Columbia; Calgary, Alberta; Toronto; Seattle; Bloomington, Indiana; Madison, Wisconsin; Asheville, North Carolina; Glendale, Ohio; and Philadelphia.

More information on those projects and a list of others can found at urbanfoodforestry.org/initiatives.

Minneapolis makes the list with the Bancroft Meridian Garden Food Forest. The lot along 38th Street started out as a flower garden tended by the community. In 2014, the group decided it was time to create a food forest that was more sustainable for people, wildlife and the land.

Everyone in the community is welcome to stroll around pick a few berries, apples, herbs or other things. The idea is not to harvest the food, but to create an urban foraging space for all to enjoy.

More food forests will hopefully be a part of Minneapolis’ future. But one thing is clear: It is going to take advocacy from people like us to make that happen.

Russ Henry, a longtime activist and landscape designer who is running for an at-large Park Board seat (russhenryforparks.com), and Ryan Seibold, who leads the Hiawatha Food Forest group (facebook.com/hiawathafoodforest), have been working for months to get a food forest started near Lake Hiawatha on the site of the frequently flooded Hiawatha Golf Course.

Public feedback has been positive, for the most part. In many different public meetings, thousands of residents (golfers and non-golfers) have expressed support for the idea of restoring the wetlands, which were drained in the 1930s to create the golf course. Along the edge of the wetland on a little bit higher ground, edibles could be planted to create a walk-able food forest.

The idea was by far the most popular among those that were pitched during a March 16 “Innovation Lab.” Organized by Henry, the event drew more than 150 people who wanted to hear farmers, beekeepers, restaurateurs, composters and other interested folks offer their thoughts on transforming the local food system.

“People like the idea of being able to do some food foraging in parks,” says Henry, who believes food forests have the potential to also connect people and build communities.

In a progressive city like ours, you’d think a fun, 21st-century, eco-friendly suggestion like this would be a slam dunk. But it isn’t, and in this case the thorn is the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

The Hiawatha Golf Course is one of seven courses that the Park Board operates in the city. But despite the fact that keeping the soggy course, which purportedly lost money last year, operational means pumping millions of gallons of groundwater into already ailing Lake Hiawatha, they don’t seem very interested in making a change.

Though they are aware of residents’ and activists’ interest in allowing the golf course to return to its natural wetland state, and potentially adding a food forest of one size or another, the Park Board has continued pumping groundwater and has restored the course to a full 18 holes for the summer. Woo hoo!

Park Board Commissioner Steffanie Musich, who represents the area, told the Star Tribune in March that Henry and others who are pitching the food forest idea are violating the board’s planning process by pushing for change.

“There are a lot of angry people that feel like the planning process is not being respected,” Musich said, explaining that some kind of “urban agricultural zone” is being considered as part of the master plan for the golf course and surrounding park.

Henry and other activists counter that the Park Board has shown that it is not keen on, or receptive to, input they don’t like, whether it is coming from the public or even from within their own ranks. My commissioner, Brad Bourn (District 6), has been repeatedly disrespected by his Park Board colleagues for supporting ideas that would move our parks in a more organic and sustainable direction. (Thank you for pushing for what’s right, commissioner Bourn!)

So, here’s the thing: In that March Star Tribune interview, Musich said that her mind, and the minds of other Park Board members, are open to the idea of fruit and nut trees being included in plans for the golf course and park. But they need more feedback from the community before making a decision.

“We can’t just vet the idea with a group that’s already excited about it,” she said. “We need to vet it to the entire community and all the people that have shown interest in the future of this park.”

Hey, well, whaddya say we show her and the rest of the Park Board some interest? And not just for the future of this park, but for all of our parks that are carpeted with chemical-soaked grass and long overdue for a safe and environmentally conscious overhaul. Commissioners’ contact info is here: minneapolisparks.org/about_us/leadership_and_structure/commissioners.


Check out Meleah’s blog: www.everydaygardener.com for more gardening tips or to email her a question or comment.