It’s mid-July and, despite months without rain, the berries, herbs, flowers, and fruit trees at the public food forest surrounding the Cavanagh Recreation Center in downtown Petaluma are flourishing. As we brush past pomegranate and fig trees, Trathen Heckman, executive director of Daily Acts, points out two thriving elderberry trees, their hanging branches laden with the tart purple berries used by herbalists for potent elixirs and cordials.
“Can I pick one?” I ask, although it feels like I’m stealing. After all, these trees don’t belong to me — they’re on city land. It’s hard to believe that I can help myself to the fruit that isn’t growing on my own property, but the key word here is “public.” The food forest is a place for everyone in the community to utilize. Heckman, an affable 45-year-old with the energy of a teenager, grins widely.
“Yes, of course! Come back and harvest some more if you like,” he says.
In a time where everything seems to come at a cost, the idea of civically supported free edibles on city property feels abundant, exhilarating, even decadent.
“It’s part of the neighborhood ecosystem,” says Heckman, who lives near the Cavanagh Center. He started Daily Acts in 2002 to facilitate the creation of environmentally and socially resilient communities. “People care for it and connect to it. The kids play here and they harvest. That’s part of going from a culture of consumption and disconnection to a culture of place that uses fewer resources and carries a reverence and humility for nature.”
Public food forests aren’t too common in Sonoma County — the one at the Cavanagh Center was the first in Northern California — but they are spreading both locally and nationally. Food justice advocates like Ron Finley, best known for spreading the gospel of urban gardens in Los Angeles, have championed public food forests as a way to increase the consumption of healthy foods, food security, and an appreciation for nature and plants in urban and suburban neighborhoods. In Washington, an unruly seven-acre parcel of city land owned by Seattle Public Utilities was transformed into the Beacon Food Forest, the largest of its kind in the nation, where the community can learn about greywater systems, medicinal plants, pruning, and cooking. In addition, low-income families are able to gather herbs and other necessities for their meals, and surplus vegetables and fruit are donated to the local food bank.
This is an entirely new way of using public land. As Heckman puts it, “What are nature’s operating instructions and how can we apply them to how we work in our public landscapes? Let’s food forest our world to meet our needs for food, medicine, habitat, community—to reduce our resource use, to address climate change and drought, and to create a nature connection.”
[Food forests] are a great process for converting food deserts and acres of grass into something vibrant that makes neighborhoods better and brings people together,” says Reneé. “Plus, they help people care for food [and] grow it themselves while learning how to capture water from rooftops and create these lush spaces without all the water that’s needed to have the same space covered with grass. And without the chemicals and labor required.”
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