Trees please, with fruit

by Quinn O'Neill

Keukenhof2Seattle residents have a brilliant plan in the works. They're building America's largest “food forest”. It's going to be a 7-acre plot with hundreds of edible plants, including walnut and chestnut trees; blueberry and raspberry bushes; fruit trees, including apple and pear trees; pineapple, yuzu citrus, guava, and persimmons; honeyberries and lingonberries; and herbs. According to this report, “All will be available for public plucking to anyone who wanders into the city's first food forest.”

I think this is a fantastic idea. Why haven't we been doing this everywhere?

The potential benefits are innumerable. The most obvious perk might be aesthetic, but lush blossoming trees and greenery are more than just eye candy. Exposure to vegetation also has benefits for mental health, reducing anxiety and improving mood. Memory gains and improvements in mood as a result of nature walks have even been reported in adults suffering from major depressive disorders.

The mechanism underlying the mental boost isn't clear. Neighborhood greenery could encourage people to spend more time outdoors, more time engaged in physical activity, and more time mixing socially with other community members. These factors probably play a role, but they don't tell the whole story. Even looking at photos of vegetation can help to focus attention and reduce mental fatigue and stress compared to looking at similar photos with no vegetation.

Of course, Seattle's food park isn't just about greenery, since much of its botanical offerings will be edible. Given the prevalence of obesity, poverty, and food deserts in the US, we might also expect some improvement in physical health as a result of better nutrition. The park's fruit and berries may not be adequate to steadily supply community members, but this might not be so important. Just encouraging experimentation with novel food items – particularly the more exotic ones – can inspire people to buy them when they go grocery shopping. Shoppers encountering persimmons or guavas for the first time might be deterred by the unknown: Do you have to peel them? Can you eat the seeds? Do they need to be cooked first? With park visitors inadvertently offering free demonstrations of how to eat the foods, overcoming these knowledge barriers would literally be a walk in the park.

Actual experience with healthy foods can be an important influence on dietary choices. Research has shown that school gardening programs can promote healthy dietary changes in students. In one study of second graders, students who received both nutrition education and gardening experience were more likely to choose and consume vegetables in the lunchroom than peers who received only nutrition education. Perhaps experience with new fruits in a food forest could have a similar effect on adults.

Food forests may have environmental and ecological benefits too, as they remove CO2 from the air and offer their blossoms to vulnerable pollinators, like honeybees and butterflies. The park may also help to instill in its visitors an appreciation for the natural environment and the importance of protecting it for future generations. This could be an especially important lesson for today's youth, who spend relatively more time in indoor urban environments and are saturated with technological gadgetry.

Another potential benefit of greener surroundings could be reduced crime. A recent study of Philadelphia neighborhoods found lower rates of assault, robbery, and burglary in communities with more abundant vegetation. The effect was still apparent after controlling for socioeconomic indicators of disadvantage, like poverty and educational attainment.The authors discuss a couple of explanations for the findings. Green spaces encourage people to spend more time outdoors, which discourages crime through greater social supervision. And, the plants themselves have a mentally restorative effect, reducing the psychological precursors to violent behavior, like irritability and loss of impulse control.

Food forests might prove especially benefical in high crime communities. Undoubtedly, there would be additional challenges to implementing them in such places and it might be necessary to hire people for both maintenance and security purposes. But, if establishing a food forest could prevent even a few crimes for which people would end up being jailed, the project might pay for itself. Crime is expensive. In the US, it costs more than $20, 000 per year to keep someone in a state prison. Property damage associated with crime is also costly. Of course, I'm making a bit of a jump from correlation to causation here. It's not clear how much crime, if any, could be prevented as a result of greening a neighborhood, but a reduction wouldn't have to be huge for the park to be a good financial investment in this respect. These neighborhoods also tend to have more than their fair share of poverty, food deserts, obesity, and disease, so there are many other good reasons why a food forest might be worth a try.

A promising aspect of the idea is that it wouldn't necessarily require a tremendous amount of investment or expertise. Similar projects could be done on smaller scales and adapted to the conditions at hand. Gardening programs at schools or community centers are one idea, and on an even smaller scale, a few friends or neighbors could coordinate their own backyard gardens so that they could share their produce and have greater variety. Such projects lend themselves well to organization at a variety of levels. Some communities may even already have gardening clubs or residents with relevant expertise who might be willling to help.

I think the idea offers an oasis of hope at a time when we're outgunned by industry forces that would have us eating processed junk food and medicating ourselves for the mildest of mental health problems. Chemical companies have been stubbornly pushing their profitable insecticides despite concerns about dangers to honeybees, and the corporate media have been ignoring serious environmental issues. It can all be rather disheartening. But in the midst of it all, Seattleites have offered us a reminder that we still have power at local levels to cultivate an appreciation for nature and to positively influence the health of our families and our communities.

Correction: This post originally stated that Seattle residents were building “America's first 'food forest'”. This appears to be false. Though Seattle's food forest will be unique in many respects, similar forest gardening projects exist at the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Colorado and the Montview Neighborhood Farm in Massachusetts. Additionally, one commenter here has a 5-acre one in the works in Monterey, California.

Photo credit: Tiago Fioreze, Wikimedia Commons