Establishing Food Forests with The Orchard Project

Shared Assets have been working with The Orchard Project to evaluate a project which is creating community-based food forests in urban areas with specific social needs around the UK, to improve social equity and access to food. Together with the communities involved, we have been exploring the ways the food forests have been set up, to ultimately provide guidance and recommendations for similar initiatives The Orchard Project supports.

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, whilst nourishing the ecosystem as a whole.  

These are exciting times for food forests, as their benefits are increasingly being recognised - for example, that 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 in the Americas, have long been cultivated by indigenous peoples - for example, the Amazon Rainforest partly owes its biodiversity to this fact. In reviving the concept here in the UK, we are establishing reconnection with our past.  

In the evaluation Shared Assets has been leading, we have tried to understand in depth the early stages of establishing a food forest, for example by exploring the needs of the communities involved, and the learning curves that need to be addressed in order to set up the food forests successfully. 

A focus group in a greenhouse, with three people visible standing around a table with a page of post it notes, on a sunny winter's day.
Focus Group at Viewpark Conservation Group, North Lanarkshire

To help do this, we ran focus groups over the last few months at the three food forest sites involved in the project:

The focus groups generally involved group discussion and reflection on how the work to set up the food forests had been going so far, what is being planned for the future, as well as noting the environmental, social and economic benefits of the food forests now and in years to come. The groups also considered what policy changes could help facilitate a more widespread revival of food forests in the UK.

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 in particular to directly support food forest creation. In the months ahead, as we write up a draft of the evaluation report, we will again be discussing the recommendations for policy-makers and The Orchard Project with community members, to ensure these are as useful as possible. 

Tree planting is a major focus of many government climate change policies at the moment, and sometimes these may 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 instead highlighting ways in which more people can reconnect with the land and each other to meet their needs. 

We look forward to sharing our learning as it continues in the months ahead, so watch this space!

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