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Edible Forests: A Healthy Alternative to MN Food Deserts

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates between 25 million and 30 million Americans live in "food deserts." Supporters of public "food forests" say they can help close the gaps. (Adobe Stock)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates between 25 million and 30 million Americans live in "food deserts." Supporters of public "food forests" say they can help close the gaps. (Adobe Stock)
 By Mike Moen - Producer, Contact
August 28, 2020

LUVERNE, Minn. - A nonprofit group is working to create "edible forests" to provide lower-income communities, including in southwestern Minnesota, greater access to healthy foods.

Project Food Forest, based in Sioux Falls, wants to help eliminate "food deserts," areas where there's no grocery store nearby that sells affordable, nutritious products.

While community gardens help fight hunger, Kim Rockman - executive director of Project Food Forest - said they can be hard to maintain in a neighborhood with limited resources. She said food forests require some volunteer work after they've been established, but don't need as much attention because they're made up mostly of self-sustaining perennials.

"There's no one-size-fits-all model for a food forest," she said. "We have done vegetables, we have a few vegetables in the ground now, but definitely, the focus is the perennial plants."

The perennials include fruit trees, berries, herbs, mushrooms - all types of edibles, grown in conditions that mimic nature and offer variety for those who might otherwise lack access.

For now, Rockman said the group's primary work is in Luverne, Minnesota, classified as a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The community food forest there saw its first plantings in 2018.

Rockman said there's a lot of need on the South Dakota side as well, and her group's reach includes northwestern Iowa, too. She said she also gets requests from other parts of the country, where communities need guidance.

"A big chunk of what we're doing, in addition to the hands-on, hyper-local work," she said, "is how can we bridge gaps?"

Supporters of this movement say they're not trying to replace the work of community gardens or food pantries - and that all these resources complement each other. They also point out that food forests have environmental benefits, by creating tree canopies in urban areas lacking in nature.

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