Guest Article: The Community Food Forest Collective

The Community Food Forest Collective

by Amy Zimmermann and De Herman

What unites a diverse local group of volunteers getting their hands in the soil? It’s the passion to design, install, and maintain food forests in the Takoma Park/Silver Spring community and to enhance the health and well-being of all who live here.

Since launching two years ago,150 people have joined the Community Food Forest Collective (CFFC), a non-profit whose growing list serve includes 15 core organizers and six skilled permaculture designers. Winning significant funding, CFFC has initiated food forests at Montgomery College (MC) and Takoma Park Elementary School (TPES) and connected with local initiatives involved in food production, tapping into a wealth of expertise.

So, what is a food forest?

Imagine a lovely garden growing perennials mimicking the layers of a natural forest— trees, bushes, ground covers, vines.

Imagine it produces an abundance of nutrient dense food: fruit trees like figs, persimmons, and pawpaws; bushes like blueberries, gooseberries, and elderberries; herbs; and perennial vegetables.

Imagine it ultimately needs very little digging, weeding, manual watering, or pest control, thanks to water harvesting techniques, and nitrogen-fixer and pollinator-attracting native plants.

And imagine it exists harmoniously with animals, provides a place for community events and draws people together for education, recreation, and service. That’s a food forest.

The Montgomery College Food Forest

This Spring dozens of enthusiastic volunteers from diverse cultural, ethnic, and organizational backgrounds—young children to high school and college students to elders—spread mounds of leaf mulch and wood chips, planted edible fruit trees and bushes, and built two erosion-preventing stone walls, establishing the first food forest on the TP/SS campus of MC. Designers, including students from the college’s popular Permaculture Club, mapped out seven beds at the highly visible site on Philadelphia Avenue adjacent to Chicago Avenue.

The project aims to nurture a deeper understanding of food production and food sovereignty by engaging students in the planting and stewardship of the food forest. Another goal is to increase the supply of free and nutritious food to the college, whose students suffer high rates of food insecurity. In a survey, 36 percent of MC students said they had experienced food insecurity in the prior month, 38 percent said they could not afford to eat balanced meals, and 43 percent worried about running out of food before they had enough money to buy more.

To begin, permaculture experts made a design for planting, accounting for water and wind movement through the site. Each section responds to unique microclimates and issues such as storm water runoff, necessitating catchment areas, or less sun, requiring shade tolerant plants.

Strong-armed volunteers learned from landscape architect Byrne Kelly how to build a dry stone wall to manage erosion. Others planted edible plants in shallow ditches to help with water harvesting and nitrogen-fixing plants around them to act as a natural fertilizer.

MC student Tierney Acosta started a campus Permaculture Club, now involving 30 participants. The group designed one section of the garden, led community work days, and started a seed library. Still to come, the woodworking department will build benches, the art department will paint a mural, and an agriculture professor will support fruit tree maintenance. CFFC will work closely with the college to ensure edibles grown in the food forest reach students in need. The college facilities team has granted CFFC two additional plots of land to be planted in future seasons.

MC staff want this garden shared with the community, a concept already bolstered by the many and varied hands working thus far, including middle and high school students earning service learning (SSL) hours, Master Gardeners, as well as nonprofits like Koiner Farm, CHEER (Community Health and Empowerment through Education and Research), and Shepherd’s Table.

CFFC’s goals include workshops to teach participants planting, propagation, transplanting, and grafting techniques; culture and history of the plants and trees; cooking and preserving methods; permaculture and food forestry skills. Volunteers will help harvest, maintain, and steward the food forest, allowing it to become a space for community and college engagement and education, and a means to build bridges between students, staff, neighbors, and food forest experts.

The Takoma Park Elementary School Food Forest and beyond

The grounds behind TPES provide another site “ripe” for a food forest, creating a living classroom where schoolchildren can pick and eat fruit, experience where food comes from, and learn about lesser known native fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Work parties have laid mulch, built raised beds, and cleared invasive plants. Partnering with Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), CFFC has already planted 18 fruit trees and last year started a popular after school garden club. Since initiating this effort, MCPS’s first pilot food forest program, other schools have expressed interest in establishing similar projects.

Besides these two schools, CFFC is working with local government officials to assess the feasibility of a community food forest at a public park in Takoma Park as well as public and private landowners on additional potential food forests.

An eye is meant to see things

The soul is here for its own joy

Mysteries are not here to be solved

The eye goes blind when it only wants to see why.