Food insecurity is an issue that plagues communities across the nation. Food deserts, or areas where residences do not have access to a reliable source of healthy food within a convenient traveling distance (typically a full service grocery store, rather than a corner store like a gas station), often force people to travel long distances either via car, bus, or on foot to find these food resources.
One way to help combat food insecurity is to implement food forests, and to encourage foraging. Teaching communities the value of the plants in their own backyard will not only provide people with food resources, but will also help increase community and environmental resilience and health.
What are food forests?
A food forest is a grouping of edible plants that are intentionally planted to mimic the natural ecosystem of a forest. Several layers of plants ranging from trees and shrubs to vines and ground cover plants provide ample options for food. They are also intentionally designed to consist of self seeding perennials, meaning they do not need to be replanted each year. Typically, a food forest consists of 7-8 layers:
1. Tall Tree or Canopy Layer: This layer contains trees of more than 30ft in height. Typically, they produce nuts.
2. Sub-Canopy or Large Shrub Layer: This layer contains trees that are around 10-30 ft in height. Typically, these consist of fruit trees.
3. Shrub Layer: This layer consists of bushes and shrubs, up to 10 ft in height. This would mean berry bushes, smaller nut bushes, and some medicinal plants.
4. Herbaceous Layer: This layer consists of herbs and medicinal plants. Each winter, they die back, but grow back in the spring. They are similar to the plants that you would grow in your garden.
5. Ground Cover Layer: These plants, such as strawberry and mint, can tolerate being stepped on and are typically closer to the ground than herbaceous layer plants.
6. Underground Layer: These are plants whose roots are edible, such as carrots and artichokes. These often overlap with herbaceous layer plants like garlic and onions.
7. Climber, Vine or Vertical Layer: These plants are vines which can grow both horizontally and vertically, up along trees and trellises. Grapes, beans, and cucumbers are good examples of this.
8. [BONUS] Mycelial or Fungal Layer: Mushrooms are as much of a part of the food forest as anything mentioned above, adding nutrients to the soil. Once they are fully established, they will become an essential fixture.
Not only do food forests provide healthy food options, they also provide social connections, reduced food costs, enhanced physical activity, and hands-on outdoor learning experiences for children. Their plants fix nitrogen to the soil, and the diversity of the plants and fungi allow them to be both highly productive and resilient to extreme weather events and pests.
- Increased diversity in the soil → increased resiliency to disease, climate, pests, etc.
- Plants fix nitrogen to the soil, increasing its health
- Provide habitat and food for local wildlife and insects
- Act as green infrastructure (helping to store and redirect stormwater)
- Absorb carbon
- Regulate micro-climate and reduce heat from urban heat islands (the effect caused by heat and the massive amount of concrete in cities, paired with the lack of green/shaded areas)
Social and Health Benefits
- Increased green space to interact with
- Opportunities for increased awareness and education regarding local plants in adults and children alike
- Available to people from diverse backgrounds (typically in areas easily accessed by members of the community)
- Increased community connection
- Increased food security
- Provides opportunities for exercise and development of fine motor skills
- Reduced food cost + ability to make cleaners and some herbal remedies at home
- Once established and invested in, it will continue to produce and not need to be replanted
**Food forests are set up intentionally, and their care is enacted in a way to ensure community health. That being said, make sure that you are picking from areas that are both public and safe! Intentional community food forests are grown without herbicides and chemicals, but you must practice caution eating anything you have found in non-marked areas. It is also beneficial to err on the side of caution; if you’re not sure of what something is, don’t take it home with you.**
Nebraska Food Forests
Currently, there are 2 community food forests in Nebraska. There are also opportunities to transform your residential lawn into a food forest for private use.
Southern Heights Food Forest – Lincoln, NE
Southern Heights Food Forest was created in 2012 by two nonprofits in Lincoln, Community Crops and Nature Explore, in conjunction with Southern Heights Presbyterian Church. This food forest is 2 acres in size, and also contains an outdoor classroom for children, 50 community garden plots, and a large pollinator garden.
Benson Food Forest – Omaha, NE
Benson Food Forest is a Blossom & Wood collaboration with Fork N Farm, created in 2014. It is located in the Benson neighborhood in Omaha. They plan to add several areas for outdoor learning, as well as an outdoor kitchen.
Making Your Own Food Forest
Food forests are not just for public places – you can put one in your own backyard! Companies like Food Forest Omaha will design food forests for your backyard. You can also plan a food forest yourself, by following the 7-8 layered design for your plants, and adapting the garden to fit your needs and family.
What is foraging?
Foraging is the word that describes looking for food. For thousands of years, humans have foraged for food in their direct environment, such as berries, fruit, nuts, mushrooms, and medicinal plants. It is a common practice in many cultures, and it has recently been growing in popularity as more people attempt to reduce their carbon footprint. Foraging provides opportunities for outdoor exploration and education, and teaching this skill helps to fight back against food insecurity.
Foraging Tips and Tricks
Here is a brief list of tips for beginning foragers:
- BE CAUTIOUS. Only eat or touch plants that you’re 100% sure are safe. Do your research on both your edible plants AND common poisonous plants, so that you can recognize them. Increase your knowledge of plants by going with someone more skilled than you, and by erring on the side of caution when you are unsure about a plant.
- KNOW YOUR LAND. Make sure to stay away from areas where soil or water might be contaminated with pollutants or disease. Know what plants grow in your area, so that you know what to look for. Know the rules of the place you plan to forage (is it public or private?)
- FEED ON WEEDS. Dandelions and other plants like mint are invasive weeds. Harvest more of these edible plants, to help manage responsibly.
- TAKE WHAT YOU NEED, LEAVE WHAT YOU DON’T. Leave some of the resources for others! Take parts of a plant, not all of it. And leave no trace behind.
- Clean your tools and clothes between harvests to avoid transplanting invasive seeds or disease to new areas.
- Clip leaves and plant parts with a sharp knife to allow the plant to continue growing.
- Plastic containers will suffocate your harvest and cause it to mildew. Collect plants in a breathable cotton sack, basket, or your shirt.
- Try joining a group of foragers, to learn and partner with.
Foraging in Nebraska
Here’s a list of some edible plants and fungi in Nebraska:
- Wild Asparagus
- Wild Violets
- Stinging Nettle
- Common Cattail
- Curly Dock
- Rose Hips
- Elderberries (ALWAYS COOK BEFORE EATING)
This article is a good reference to more Nebraska-specific plants which can be foraged.
- Morels (spring)
- Giant puffballs (fall)
- Oyster mushrooms (fall)
- Chicken of the woods (fall)
- Wood ear mushrooms
- Dead man’s fingers
- Coral tooth mushroom
- Bear’s head tooth mushroom
- Rooster of the woods
- Hen of the woods
- Pheasant back/Dryad’s saddle
This guide by Plant Nebraska includes more information about Nebraska mushrooms, how to collect them, how to cook them, and how to store them.
Want to learn more about edible plants in Nebraska? Check out our webinars!
Want to do some more reading about food forests and foraging? Here are some helpful resources!
AmeriCorps Conservation Director
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