Changing Planet

Seattle’s Free Food Experiment

Can food be free, fresh and easily accessible? That’s the bold question that the city of Seattle is hoping to answer with a new experimental farm not far from the city’s downtown that will have fruits and vegetables for anyone to harvest this fall.

On Beacon Hill, just south of central Seattle, landscape developers and a few affordable-food advocates are building an edible food forest. Everything grown in the area, from the tree canopies to the roots, will be edible. And it’ll be open around the clock to anyone who wants to come and pick some fresh blueberries or pears. In its first phase, the farm will be 1.5 acres. But if it’s successful, the public land it’ll sit on—currently owned by Seattle Public Utilities—will be able to accommodate 5.5 more acres of growth.

Photo by Beacon Food Forest
Photo by Beacon Food Forest

One thing that’s striking about the idea (other than the idea in itself to have essentially a public farm that anyone can use—or abuse) is how the selection came together. Organizers shared with National Geographic a list of the crop offerings. Many are expected: apples, berries, row vegetables like lettuce or tomatoes. But others are pretty far out. A large Asian community in the area suggested things like Asian pears and honeyberries. A European influence led to the planting of medlar trees.

The concept is modeled on permaculture, a design system and school of thought aimed at returning some land to its own devices. Offering people free, fresh food is one motivation, but making the land useful and ecologically enriched is the larger goal.

That all said, some potential problems come to mind. What if all of one fruit is gone the first weekend its ripe? What if people pick things too early and spoil the potential for everyone? Or even worse: what if a colony of squirrels moves in and gorges while the rest of us are sleeping?

Organizers aren’t concerned about those first two questions (the third is a problem, of course, anywhere organic food is grown). “We’ve had many discussions about what would happen if someone comes and picks all the blueberries?” says Margarett Harrison, the landscape architect designing the project. “But that’s been perceived as a good thing. We’ll just plant more.”

As with anything related to agriculture and good food—in large quantities—take time. Most of the trees won’t be mature enough for a few more years. But a few decades could turn the area impressively productive.

Idealistic? Perhaps. But it’s the kind of idealism that anyone who likes to eat fresh things from time to time can get behind. And that’s the type of motivation that organizers hope will keep it going. After it’s finished, organizers will offer classes on things like canning fruit or pruning trees. All they’ll ask for in exchange are a few hours volunteering at the farm.

  • Glenn Herlihy

    Dan, thank you for your article. I’d like to address further our philosophy behind creating a public food forest and garden. The Beacon Food Forest (BFF) which is a volunteer run community supported project is very aware it is challenging human ethics by offering public food. There are many parts to our solution to over/abusive harvesting but one needs to understand the harvest or yield is only part of our goal as a community forest garden. By thinking food quantity is the end result one misses half of the equation to a successful community garden.
    We do worry about theft and if any of us can solve the age old human problem then we should be up for the Nobel Peace prize. The fact is we probably will not solve the problem of stealing but instead we look to challenge humanity to adapt to the fact and learn to work around it. We will discourage theft in many ways but the first part of the solution to this problem is to create an abundance of fruits, nuts, vegetables and herbs. With abundance we create enough food where theft makes very little impact, there is plenty left to eat ourselves (volunteers) and share with our neighbors in need (food banks, etc). Abundance is obtainable through available land and the cooperation of many beneficial species (human and insect) which is why the Beacon Food Forest looks to combine habitat regeneration with food production.
    Biological resiliency through diversity.
    Thieves tend to not be very smart. Because we are planting a diversity of food plants and trees, varieties will ripen at different times and because of the diversity of plant species (representing our diverse community) many plants, when ripe, will be unrecognizable to individuals unless they attend our educational classes . In comparison, with monoculture techniques one invasive pest can wipe out the entire crop but with polyculture techniques only a small portion is infected and the rest remains untouched because that one pest doesn’t know what to do with everything else.
    There are many more benefits to the BFF that diminish theft both at our garden and throughout the entire neighborhood. Building Community: By building a community around sharing food to the public we hope to be inclusive to all in need of food. Kind of like neutralizing hate with kindness, it works because people are happier when fed and less likely to be violent or mischievous. Being face to face in the garden we see clearly our similarities and relieve the lack of understanding associated with cultural and economic diversity. We build a friendly community immune to the social fears and inhibitions keeping us apart. We educated ourselves on growing food and saving food from a diversity of sources to pass on to future generations. We provide land for those who economically need to grow food. We get natural habitat in an urban area to walk around in and observe the cycles of nature and our food. We celebrate our ethnic diversity through food. We elevate the pressures on the planet by creating a local food source. We create a resilient community on a changing planet. GH

  • Lenny

    Dan Stone and Gen Herlihy and the Food Forest group have a lot of faith in humanity to do the right thing. They bring up the
    case of veggies,berries and apples “dissapearing” as they get to maturity or before.
    Well, me not so much. I have a feeling the Food Forest will need some regulation, perhaps a paid person or volunteer to perhaps be a custodian . Night time is another problem, when all kinds of stealing happens, and may well happen in the Food Forest. Most of us are already regulated to death, but would 6 foot fencing or lighting help, or can we still have faith in humanity to do the right thing. Time and lots of volunteer work will tell the tale as the BFF comes to fruition in the future.

    Oh, Someone we can’t regulate are the birds and other creatures finding a glorious feast with the berries and any other
    plant they may like.

    Although being somewhat negative, I will give we humans the benefit of making the Food Forest a thriving success .

  • jd

    It’s ok as an experiment as long as some people blog about it daily. I would hope taxpayer dollars aren’t being spent on it and it is supported by local businesses instead. Historically the economic principles of a common field give rise to over grazing by anyone with an insecurity. I would think the UW economics dept would be greatly interesting in the human behavior. There is no real hunger in the US with 50 million people on foodstamps. The real horrible killing hunger lies in the third world. If the beaconfoodforest improves the third world situation I would be for it. Food stealing thieves in Seattle are most likely on welfare, food stamps, or have access to a food bank. They steal mostly for non hungry reasons. Will some of this food end up in restarants. Better I think to make it a forest of choices and rewards. Allow people to donate money to Peru in exchange. Make one apple tree completely free attach a sign to the next one to “pass the favor one, make someone elses life a bit better today” have a church program about food and grace. If you are missing the religious angle about food then the focus of the effort is very incomplete. Make a big poster on why High Fructose Corn Syrup is a major killer of kids. Instead of wasting time like Dow Constantine does. Show people better choices and how to achieve them.

  • Clarissa Helton

    Great comment Glenn! I agree that the bounty is only one reason for this experiment. There are community gardens all over Seattle and urban areas across the country, and they are all at risk of someone stealing the harvest. My own un-fenced yard and parkway are overflowing with vegetables and at risk as well. Watching this project take form in my neighborhood has been a wonderful experience for both me, and my young children. We all benefit from watching sustainable gardens/forests/orchards grow. As factory farming becomes less desirable, and it already has, we will need to become more creative in how our communities grow and distribute food. I was so thrilled to see that a bird has already created a nest in the forest too! I’m looking forward to watching the forest come more alive as we move into summer. Thanks to all the volunteers who have helped make it possible.

  • Roy Gertig

    It is of interest to me on how this turns out. it’s naive to think that there is no real hunger in the United State. Every day kids go to bed hungry, even those with food stamps. Much work needs to be done here let alone the third world countries.

  • bkjsun

    I think these kinds of community food forests are the way of the future.

    But I think you need to grow many of these all around at once so that there is enough for everyone who needs it. Only 1.5 acres is too little to reach a lot of people so of course this can lead to over-harvesting.

    I really like the idea of Building Community around this. If the community building includes engaging as many people as possible in setting up the forest and in maintaining it after it’s ready, I think it can be a great success. Having information for people on the problems of overharvesting might also help, if people see the benefit of having fresh food accessible in the long term and not just getting all we can right now.

    Good luck!

  • Niall

    As long as there are humans, there’s gonna be that one who picks all the fruit and then hangs around selling it to the hungry people.

  • Peter

    Perhaps the Food Forest will be more of a target because of its visibility, but there are fruit trees and berries and some nuts available all over Seattle. Many of these fruits and berries never get harvested or eaten. They may be in abandoned orchards in the middle of neighborhoods or growing next to the sidewalk. With all of this fruit already going to “waste”, why would folk want to strip the trees in the Food Forest? Spite? It doesn’t really compute for me.

    The community benefits and environmental benefits are already being realized by at least some of those involved, even if there never was a harvest. Friendship and getting to know my neighbors have put me far ahead of where I was before I got involved. Of course the harvest of food will be enormous at some point…

    I also want to address the statement that “landscape developers and a few affordable-food advocates” are building the forest. There are no landscape developers if by that the author means someone developing land for speculative purposes – the land is public and the work is being done by community volunteers – some students, parents, business folk, construction workers, scientists, artists, public employees, web developers, software engineers and more, of all different colors and ages. Substantial outreach effort is being invested so that the folk of the forest will look like our mutual home – varied.

    May the bounty of the land sustain you.

  • Jennifer Hollings Mitz

    Wonderful and what a gift to the children who come to the education classes: to see and feel and smell how there food is grown. This will be most important to the less than advantaged children who attend the classes. I hope that all the schools in your area have signed up to be involved! What a great way to teach about biology, nutrition and the importance of taking care of our planet. Many wishes of gratitude to all who conceived and put into action this most wise endeavor. Thank you

  • Walker

    Glenn mentioned being face to face will help us realize our similarities, that is very important in our society where face to face is become face to technology instead. I really like this idea as yet another step from community gardens, Madison had proposed something like this with their Central Park planning I don’t know if it is still in the plans or not. I like to think if it caught on why couldn’t schools use part of their land to do this and churches too, it seems like the right thing to do with people in hunger everywhere not just in third world countries. Also it’s a nice answer to the obesity problems very few of us eat enough fresh food and that helps create obesity, we make up for it with proteins and sugars to excess.

    Anyway this is a great idea that should be encouraged where it is possible. There are so many public lands where some wild food growing would be easily done. Sadly as a society we seem to think any food that you didn’t pay for is somehow less than food. There is very little you can eat that won’t cost you something even hunting and fishing costs you in license fees, You go to a farmers market and somehow the food is as expensive if not more than from a store

  • Vicki

    To the team @ BFF, I commend you, where would humanity be without people who try. Thank you for your faith.

  • Margery

    Sounds as if this food is much more than just free. It’s REAL food. It’s gluten free, vegan, brightly colored, gorgeous fruits and veggies, available for the picking. I’m sure it’s often in the local news and the “talk of the town,” so many will go to see it, satisfy their curiosity, photograph it, pick the veggies, savour the fruit. Some of the children and probably some adults as well will be seeing for the first time how food really grows, and even smelling the unique fragrance of a tomato plant or a patch of mint. Some folks who call food a hot dog on highly processed white bread and french fries deep fried in fat will discover the beauty of natural food. They’ll stop thinking of a single slice of hot house tomato on a burger as sufficient veggies for the day and begin to want a whole fresh tomato and a carrot and blueberries.

    Truly there are people who go to bed hungry in the U.S., hungry for real food. Their stomachs may be full of starchy “pretend food,” but their bodies are craving nature’s best real, old fashioned food. Like the White House garden, a community garden is more than “free food.” Organized well it can be an education tool, a source of inspiration, and a community builder. I’m looking for the cynics to enjoy their surprise as community members step forward, generous with their volunteer time that more than makes up for the few who overuse. Besides the pickers there will be photographers, artists, reporters, and poets drawn to this haven for people at their best. This may be the one form of public health service that the majority can get behind!

  • Kelly

    I’d like to get involved and maybe even start one one the East coast… Would love to learn more.

  • Karen Bowman

    This is amazing. Is anything like this going on in the Chicago area?

  • Arielle

    Fort the inquiry about Chicago, this is different, but still a pretty great thing!

  • 手機殼

    Thank you for all the information was extremely accurate, just questioning if all this is possible.~

  • PGlickman

    Just visited the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and observed that their great-looking and well-tended public garden plots (planted with all kinds of vegetables) near Fairfield by the river were curiously left unharvested! Everything was left to go to seed or wither. No theft, but sad and wasteful all the same.

  • Roger Ellison

    What a great idea! I want to suggest it to our city “fathers” in Sydney, Australia

  • Sally

    I would suggest that they put in housing for mason bees so all that food can be pollenated. Mason bees do NOT sting and are native to the Americas, unlike honey bees.

  • Sally

    I hope someone will be teaching canning classes so the public can learn how to harvest and store this food. I always tell people who want me to teach them to start with reading The Ball Blue Book so they have a clue before we start. (:

  • Violet

    I love this idea (well done, Seattle) but I have to ask: Why can this article be shared by any other type of social media, but not on Pinterest? Not only would I like to pin it for my own benefit, but I know a lot of other people there would be interested.

  • Christina

    I would love to hear some follow up as to how this project has come along in the last 3 years.

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