Shared Assets has been helping us evaluate a project designed to create community-based food forests in urban areas across the UK.
The aim of Farming the Future is to improve social equity and access to food in locations with specific social needs. Alongside the communities involved in this pilot project, Shared Assets has been exploring how we’ve set up these initial food forests to provide guidance and recommendations for similar initiatives in the future.
What is a food forest?
Food forests are a practice of incorporating food growing into all the possible layers of a forest ecosystem. This allows the production of not only food, but also medicine and materials, while nourishing the ecosystem as a whole.
These are exciting times for food forests, as their benefits are increasingly being recognised. For one, they can create diverse habitats in which ecosystems are reconnected to food growing (a connection which has been gradually diminished with the introduction of large scale chemical agriculture).
Food forests are not a new concept. They have been recorded in Europe since Neolithic times, and have long been cultivated by indigenous peoples in the Americas. For example, the Amazon Rainforest partly owes its biodiversity to established food forests. By reviving the concept here in the UK, we are reconnecting with our past.
Evaluating the pilot phase
The evaluation Shared Assets has been leading includes understanding in depth the early stages of establishing a food forest. This includes exploring the needs of the communities involved, and the learning curves that need to be addressed in order to set up successful food forests.
It included focus groups at the three food forest sites involved in this pilot project: Cae Tan CSA, a Community Supported Agriculture project on Gower, near Swansea, Cymru (Wales); Midlothian Community Hospital Garden near Edinburgh, Scotland; and Viewpark Conservation Group based in North Lanarkshire, Scotland.
The focus groups involved discussions and reflection on how the work to set up the food forests had been going so far and what is being planned, as well as noting their current and future environmental, social and economic benefits. The groups also considered what policy changes could help facilitate a more widespread revival of food forests in the UK.
Exploring the community benefits
Some of the major benefits emerging across the three groups included:
- The role of establishing a food forest in improving people’s wellbeing, skills and confidence
- Food forests being a way of enhancing habitats and storing carbon, while also producing food
- Food forests creating spaces to bring people together, build relationships with each other and their environment, and potentially lay the groundwork for collaborating on other projects beyond the food forest
The community groups were keen for there to be better policy support and funding from local government, particularly around directly support for food forest creation. In the next few months, Shared Assets will be producing an evaluation report and carrying out further discussions around this issue. The other partner in this project, the Soil Association, will be using the findings from this report to help develop policy proposals.
Tree planting is currently a major focus of many government climate change policies, and sometimes this has the potential to stir up conflict with local communities, as land is allocated either to environmental protection (such as woodland creation) or more human-focused priorities such as housing. This evaluation of food forests, which are naturally multifunctional, could have broader relevance by highlighting ways in which more people can reconnect with the land and each other to meet wider needs.
This news item is adapted from an article that first appeared on Shared Asset’s website.