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Could part of Fairmount Park become a free food forest for Philadelphians in need? | Ideas We Should Steal

Philly is ripe for a food farming revolution.

Volunteers at work at the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle.
Volunteers at work at the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle.Read moreJonathan Lee / SubtleDream Photography

Ideas We Should Steal is a regular feature of the Philadelphia Citizen, which will be holding an Ideas We Should Steal Festival in late 2018.

Imagine this: On a two-acre plot, at the edge of Fairmount Park, sits a forest hearkening back to the days when nature — not people — ruled the planet. Fruit trees tower over berry shrubs, fruit-bearing vines creep upwards. Insects, birds, animals fill the spaces in between. And every day, scores of Philadelphians wander through, filling their arms with fresh produce to take home — all for free.

This is the vision of a group of Philadelphia food access advocates — and it's not as crazy as it seems. In fact, there's precedent in Seattle.

Beacon Food Forest, in Seattle's Beacon Hill, is the largest food forest on public land in the country, occupying two acres of a seven-acre plot sitting above a covered reservoir in South Seattle; the volunteers who maintain the forest are planning another two acres. The garden contains 420 species of edibles, some native to Seattle, like raspberries, huckleberries, and walnuts, and some a reflection of the surrounding communities of Chinese, Vietnamese, Somalians, Latinos, and African Americans, like Chinese pepper trees, persimmons, and figs. Everything grown at Beacon Forest is free to anyone and everyone who wants to pick it at anytime.

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"The goal is to create community and awareness around a local food supply, what you can grow that you don't get in grocery stores," says Glenn Herlihy, the forest's cofounder. "It's social healing and land healing at the same time."

Beacon Forest is an example of permaculture, which means it is self-sustaining and perennial. The idea came out of a permaculture workshop Herlihy took in 2009, when for his final project, he decided to design a dream farm on an undeveloped piece of land next to a large park in his neighborhood of Beacon Hill. He passed the class, and then took his idea to the community, where he found a willing group of residents who decided to make his dream a reality. In 2012, after securing permission from Seattle Public Utilities and $140,000, mostly from the city's Department of Neighborhoods, Beacon Forest broke ground.

All of it — the planting, the upkeep, the harvesting — depends on the community. Only a few workers, like construction managers and teachers, receive occasional stipends. The rest of the 80 or so regular planters are volunteers from all over the city. Meanwhile, the food grown is picked regularly by neighbors, and anyone else who travels to South Seattle. How many people have eaten from the garden is unclear since it is unmonitored, on public land, and free.

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Like so many projects of its kind, Beacon was made possible by several factors: A dedicated group of volunteers; a city willing to work with them; and available public funding, partly as a result of a levy approved by voters to make improvements to Seattle's many parks.

That's what makes this such an optimal time for a group of Philly volunteers working to develop what they call Fair Amount Food Forest, a publicly accessible food forest in Fairmount Park.

Formed by Michael Muehlbauer, a landscaper, farmer, and builder who was a core Beacon Forest member when he lived in Seattle, the initiative is in the early planning stages — talking to the city, forming partnerships with like-minded organizations, reaching out to neighborhoods that abut Fairmount Park to see who, if anyone, would want something like the Beacon Food Forest in their community.

Muehlbauer says he is hopeful that the city will grant his group a couple of acres to launch a food forest. And it is conceivable that the city could help to fund it with revenue from the tax on sugary beverages, a portion of which is slated for public park improvement. Like Beacon in Seattle, though, the city has first asked them to find other community partners and to get neighborhood buy-in for the project.

Unlike Seattle, a relatively wealthy city with little unused land, Philly is ripe for a food farming revolution: The city has some 40,000 vacant lots, acres that are mostly eyesores. It also, despite incredible efforts on the parts of several groups, still is home to several food deserts, neighborhoods in which it is difficult and expensive for residents to access fresh produce. And many of those residents are the ones most in need: The 26 percent in poverty, with the host of ailments that go along with the city's worst and most unshakable problem. Fair Amount would not solve all of these problems. But it could be part of an environmental, social, and nutritional answer to many of the issues the city faces.

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Herlihy says that when they first proposed the idea of Beacon Forest, they were asked about how to handle people who might want to take, for example, every blueberry in the garden. But Herlihy says it hasn't been an issue. Plants are scattered throughout the forest, so grabbing any of one species would be more complicated than simply walking in with a big box to fill. And, anyway, it wouldn't be an issue.

"If they're coming in and taking it all, that means there's a demand," Herlihy says. "It means there are people who are hungry and need it, and that we should be doing more. We need more abundance to serve the need. We're here for everyone."

Roxanne Patel Shepelavy is executive editor of the Philadelphia Citizen, where a version of this piece originally appeared.