This story has been updated.
More than two dozen residents and city employees stood in the pouring rain Tuesday morning in Villa Coronado Park to plant the city’s latest “food forest” — an orchard of fruit-bearing trees on public land.
Urban food forests, an extension of edible landscaping, are sprouting in cities across the U.S. as a way to address a myriad of issues, including climate change and food insecurity.
The trend appears to be taking root in San Antonio. The Southside orchard planted Tuesday, consisting of 15 fruit-bearing trees, comes roughly a year after the launch of San Antonio’s first food forest in Padre Park.
The Villa Coronado Park orchard is the result of a partnership between the city’s Metropolitan Health District and its Parks and Recreation Department, while the Tamōx Talōm Community Food Forest is a partnership between the Food Policy Council of San Antonio, the city’s Office of Innovation and Bexar County’s Parks and Recreation Department.
Its 60 saplings will soon become 100, with the Food Policy Council planning to plant additional trees next month.
The Villa Coronado Park orchard is aimed at helping fill in one of the city’s biggest food deserts, said Amanda Onochie, an employee with the city’s Healthy Neighborhoods initiative.
The nearest grocery store to the Villa Coronado neighborhood is a 10-minute drive away, and not everyone in the area has access to a vehicle, making it more difficult to buy fresh, healthy food, Onochie said.
The Villa Coronado Park orchard is the rebirth of an earlier attempt by a group of Girl Scouts six years ago, said Nadia Gaona, a food policy analyst with Metro Health who got down in the dirt to help plant trees Tuesday. But without an irrigation system or regular care, it was unsuccessful.
This latest effort includes an irrigation system and will be tended by the neighborhood association, said Ruby Zavala, the assistant city forester.
The orchard, which consists of lemon, orange, fig, peach, pomegranate, pear and palmetto trees, will be joined by a still-under-construction resource center at the park, which will help residents learn how to grow their own food and apply for food-related benefit programs, said Anna Macnak, the health program manager for Healthy Neighborhoods. The center will open this fall, Macnack said.
“We want this to be a space to help this part of the city become more food secure,” she said. “We’re excited to see this area become activated.”
A year of growth
The fig, pecan, mulberry, loquat, pear, plum and citrus trees within the Tamōx Talōm Community Food Forest are still slender, most between two and four feet high. Most are sprouting green leaves and blossoms, and the rest are not far behind, said Mitch Hagney, a board member of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio, and driving force behind the creation of the city’s first food forest.
Planted a year ago, the trees will eventually provide fruit to anyone who wants to pick some. As with the Villa Coronado effort, organizers hope the bounty will help food-insecure residents add healthy and free fresh fruit to their diets.
The Food Policy Council is a nonprofit launched in 2010 to battle food insecurity in the San Antonio area by developing local food systems. Since it planted the orchard, several other organizations have joined the effort to care for the saplings.
The trees will take five to 10 years to yield fruit, said Hagney. While it will be open for passersby to grab, the Food Policy Council will also likely host harvest days, and plans to eventually work with the Food Bank to help distribute the fresh bounty, he said.
“People get really excited about agriculture,” said Hagney. “One of the things that actually brings people together is sustainable ag.”
The food forest took several years of planning prior to its launch. The Food Policy Council first had to secure a land agreement with the county; it then received $25,000 from the city’s Office of Innovation. The project also secured $5,000 from the Texas Food and Wine Alliance, plus additional private donations.
Brian Dillard, the city’s chief innovation officer, said the department has long been interested in how urban agriculture can help reduce food deserts in San Antonio. The food forest project is a great way to utilize existing land for higher use, he said.
Urban agriculture projects fall under the Smart Cities team in the innovation office, which is led by Hagney’s partner. Dillard said the city didn’t fund the project because of that relationship.
“We’ve seen this sort of project in other smart cities around the U.S. and globally as well,” Dillard said. “It felt like a natural fit and we felt like we could help.”
Since its launch, Tamōx Talōm has received $50,000 from Toyota in partnership with the San Antonio Parks Foundation and an additional $15,000 from private donors. That money will pay for a bike rack, benches and a shaded area for learning to the growing grove. The council also plans to hire a part time staffer to tend the growing orchard, Hagney said.
Tamōx Talōm means fire spirit in Pajalate, a language of the Coahuiltecans who populated the area hundreds of years ago, Hagney said. Another aim of the project is to reclaim indigenous agricultural lands, through features and events that will teach visitors about the agricultural practices believed to be practiced in this region.
“A common misconception is that when the Spanish arrived there was just wild food here that was totally uncultivated,” Hagney said. More likely, nomadic indigenous groups such as the Coahuiltecans cultivated various crops. Descendants of those groups are involved in the project today, he said.
Over the past year, the farm has been tended weekly by Food Policy Council members and other volunteers interested in helping see the forest flourish, Hagney said. They work Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., usually 10 to 15 at a time. He estimated the project has seen more than 100 different volunteers help out over the past year.
The Food Policy Council will host a volunteer workday and planting day at the food forest on April 22 in celebration of Earth Day.