Free Food Forests: The Return of the Commons

Once it was not unusual for a community to have shared land that everyone owned and everyone could benefit from. This common area was a place where citizens could graze their animals, gather firewood, and harvest food. Today, communities are reviving this concept by building food forests to fight food deserts and rebuild communities.

Atlanta’s Free Food Forest

Atlanta is turning seven acres of city-owned land into a forest of free food.

As Mike McCord of Trees Atlanta describes in this CityLab article, the project is more than a community garden:

Unlike with commercial farming, we’re growing food on multiple layers. A forest has canopy trees, small trees, bushes, ground covers, vines, fungus, things going on in the root zone. The idea is to mimic our natural forests and grow productive things on all seven layers.

Anyone will be able to enter the food forest and harvest what is naturally growing there.

This is not just a feel-good environmental project. The neighborhood surrounding the site is considered a food desert, which in the marketing mindset is a distribution problem. Growing the food forest is part of Atlanta’s goal of putting fresh food within a half mile of 85 percent of residents by 2021.

Growing A Movement

Atlanta’s project has received a lot of press, but it’s not unique.

U.S. cities such as Seattle, Akron, and Bloomington now offer free food forests to the community.

In the U.K., the Food Project Project runs several sites in the greater Bristol area.

One variant on this movement has community mapping existing fruit trees on private land where people are welcome to pick. This seems more like a virtual forest to me, but keeps the spirit of the community forest.

Governing commons is a fascinating challenge in economic and social organization. Studying that challenge made Elinor Ostrom the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. Check out her book Governing the Commons.

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

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