It is no secret that in the United States many men, women and children go to bed hungry on a regular basis. According to a 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture study, as many as 17.6 million households (14.5 percent) could be considered food insecure. Hand in hand with the issue of hunger, many individuals face severe nutritional deficits due to poor diets.
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City planners can help combat issues of hunger and poor nutrition through the support of locally based agricultural movements, including community gardens and urban food forests, and through policy that helps educate citizens about issues of food.
The recently opened Beacon Food Forest in Seattle is a great example of urban revitalization and community building through food production. The Beacon forest is a 7-acre foraging mecca, just two miles outside of the Seattle city center. Best of all, it is accessible to everyone, free of charge. This foraging forest provides far more than locally grown, nutritious food — it also serves as an institution of learning, a place for communal gathering and as an eye-opening experience for those who practically live in the drive-through lanes of our fast food nation. This study (pdf), authored in part by a U.S. Forest Service researcher, looks at Beacon in the context of edible landscapes and forestry.
The Beacon Food Forest is a truly unique food-sharing model, as it is open and accessible to everyone to harvest whatever produce they want, regardless of income. The Beacon Food Forest breaks from traditional community-supported agriculture in that there is no cost to participate and it serves a large region. Critics of the food forest model note that there is nothing to stop individuals from overusing the garden and taking more than they will need. The “tragedy of the commons” argument shows its face all too often in relation to unrestricted public goods, and shouldn’t weaken the many potential positive effects of community education and exposure to locally grown food movements.
The department of Parks and Recreation in Portland has created a network of community gardens as part of its land use strategy, which serves “3,000 gardeners, across all ages, income ranges and levels of experience.” Even though these planned community gardens have to compete for space with other recreational facilities, such as playgrounds and local sports fields, Portland Parks and Recreation has come to favor the numerous benefits that come from these gardens. People are now more connected with their food, children can learn about food production and nutrition and positive public gathering places have been created.
Many communities, including Boise, have already established a wide range of support for local food, for avid backyard enthusiasts, community supported agriculture businesses, educational gardens and local farmers’ markets. While many initiatives already exist, one of the biggest challenges planners face is creating infrastructure and programs that provide accessibility and affordability for high quality, nutritious food for those who need it most — those who are food insecure.
Buying a share of a community garden can often be expensive. Furthermore most community supported agriculture programs (CSAs) are only visible to those who are actively looking for them. The cost to purchase a 20-week share of Global Gardens, an Idaho refugee CSA, is $439. The question that needs to be addressed is why would anyone who is not educated on the lasting benefits of good nutrition and the benefits of local food spend $439 for a 20-week CSA membership, when one can spend $439 to buy 413 double cheeseburgers from McDonalds?
The answer is simple. Many individuals wouldn’t. Fast food is heavily advertised, easy and ready to eat and it is hard for some to justify spending $21 a week for produce that your family probably won’t know how to prepare in order to make it appetizing. While there are efforts being made to increase the accessibility of locally supported and healthy food options, they often fall out of view of those who would benefit most.
This is where the planner and projects like the Beacon Food Forest can come into play, by raising awareness and providing access to alternative food choices. Placing a seven-acre foraging forest just outside of a city center can go a long way to help draw attention to local food production. Strategic development plans that incorporate the transformation of public and private lands to centers of food production and education can also be utilized to help improve community health and awareness.
These food forests and community gardens by no means mitigate all problems of food insecurity and poor nutrition. They are but one possible solution to solving a tragic social problem in our country.
This post originally appeared at Planning Required, a blog written by graduate students in Boise State University’s Community and Regional Planning program.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.