By Ananya Kumar, Communications Intern

As we celebrate World Environment Day, it's important to reflect on sustainable practices that not only nourish our bodies but also nurture the planet. In a world where taking care of our environment is more important than ever, National Farm to School Network is excited to share a little bit about one of our developing projects at the intersection of school-based agriculture and agroforestry: school food forests. 

Farm to school programs around the country are teaming up with agroforestry and permaculture practitioners to transform the foodways of schools through traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) practices that Native communities have utilized for generations. These initiatives are key to fostering a better future, holding power to revolutionize the way we approach food education and access.

What is a food forest? 

Food forests are highly diversified growing spaces that mimic the structure and composition of new forests that naturally form after a disturbance, like a wildfire or clear-cutting. While gardens typically focus on a single layer of space, food forests utilize multiple layers of vertical space. 

Through a method known as biomimicry, these designs mimic natural forest ecosystems, with large trees at the top, followed by smaller trees and shrubs, vines and herbs, and root vegetables below. This multilayered approach maximizes the use of space, allowing for the cultivation of a diverse array of plants, fruits, and vegetables, even on limited land. 

In school settings, food forests offer students an immersive outdoor learning experience. From observing the intricate ecosystems of forest floors to studying the towering canopies of trees, students can connect with nature in profound ways. Unlike traditional gardens, food forests require minimal maintenance once established, allowing students to witness the magic of nature as it unfolds before their eyes.

Food forests are natural solutions to many of our climate and environmental justice issues. Because food forests increase food production in concentrated landmasses and are more climate resilient, they can provide a stable food source. Food forests also act as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and helping mitigate climate change. 

They also benefit the surrounding communities—by mimicking the features and socio-emotional benefits of a park or natural forest, food forests provide a serene and natural environment that can boost mental well-being. Food forests can contribute to climate justice by providing green spaces and fresh food in various communities.

Credit: John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Implementing school food forests

In school settings, food forests offer students an immersive outdoor learning experience, extending beyond science and biology. Students of all ages can engage with a wide range of subjects, from mathematics and language arts to ethnobotany and cultural studies. Many schools choose to incorporate the produce grown in food forests into their meal programs, providing students with nutritious, fresh ingredients. This not only teaches students about fresh produce but can also positively impact the wider community, particularly in areas where access to fresh produce is limited. 

Transforming a school's landscape into a food forest and outdoor classroom may seem daunting, but there are existing resources available to help guide the way. Efforts to implement school food forests have been championed in Florida through the Education Fund, a Florida-based nonprofit that has supported the design and implementation of 71 school food forests throughout Florida, reaching over 30,000 students. 

National Farm to School Network, along with our partners at the School Garden Support Organization Network, is also currently working on developing resources for schools from all ecoregions to adopt agroforestry practices at their school sites. To learn more, check out these webinar recordings on school food forests and their implementation: 

Food forests represent a tremendous shift in outdoor education, offering students a holistic learning experience that fosters a deeper connection with nature, the historical and current ecologies of their communities, and an appreciation for the land stewardship led by Native communities. All the while, they nourish both minds and bodies. By integrating food forests into school curricula and meal programs, educators can cultivate a generation of environmentally conscious individuals who understand the importance of sustainable food systems and environmental stewardship!