Food forests in southern Arizona help combat heat and hunger

2 months ago
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By Max Graham for Grist.

Broadcast version by Alex Gonzalez for Arizona News Connection reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network-Public News Service Collaboration

Below the red-tile roofs of the Catalina Foothills, an affluent area on the north end of Tucson, Arizona, lies a blanket of desert green: spiky cacti, sword-shaped yucca leaves, and the spindly limbs of palo verde and mesquite trees. Head south into the city, and the vegetation thins. Trees are especially scarce on the south side of town, where shops and schools and housing complexes sprawl across a land encrusted in concrete.

On hot summer days, you don’t just see but feel the difference. Tucson’s shadeless neighborhoods, which are predominantly low-income and Latino, soak up the heat. They swelter at summer temperatures that eclipse the city average by 8 degrees Fahrenheit and the Catalina Foothills by 12 degrees. That disparity can be deadly in a city that experienced 40 straight days above 100 degrees last year — heat that’s sure to get worse with climate change.

The good news is there’s a simple way to cool things down: Plant trees. “You’re easily 10 degrees cooler stepping under the shade of a tree,” said Brad Lancaster, an urban forester in Tucson. “It’s dramatically cooler.”

A movement is underway to populate the city’s street corners and vacant lots with groves of trees. Tucson’s city government, which has pledged to plant 1 million trees by 2030, recently got $5 million from the Biden administration to spur the effort — a portion of the $1 billion that the U.S. Forest Service committed last fall to urban and small-scale forestry projects across the United States, aiming to make communities more resilient to climate change and extreme heat.

But in Tucson and many other cities, tree-planting initiatives can tackle a lot more than scorching temperatures. What if Tucson’s million new trees — and the rest of the country’s — didn’t just keep sidewalks cool? What if they helped feed people, too?

That’s what Brandon Merchant hopes will happen on the shadeless south side of Tucson, a city where about one-fifth of the population lives more than a mile from a grocery store. He’s working on a project to plant velvet mesquite trees that thrive in the dry Sonoran Desert and have been used for centuries as a food source. The mesquite trees’ seed pods can be ground into a sweet, protein-rich flour used to make bread, cookies, and pancakes. Merchant, who works at the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, sees cultivating mesquite around the city and surrounding areas as an opportunity to ease both heat and hunger. The outcome could be a network of “food forests,” community spaces where volunteers tend fruit trees and other edible plants for neighbors to forage.

“Thinking about the root causes of hunger and the root causes of health issues, there are all these things that tie together: lack of green spaces, lack of biodiversity,” Merchant said. (The food bank received half a million dollars from the Biden administration through the Inflation Reduction Act.)

Merchant’s initiative fits into a national trend of combining forestry — and Forest Service funding — with efforts to feed people. Volunteers, school teachers, and urban farmers in cities across the country are planting fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, and other edible plants in public spaces to create shade, provide access to green space, and supply neighbors with free and healthy food. These food forests, forest gardens, and edible parks have sprouted up at churches, schools, empty lots, and street corners in numerous cities, including Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Seattle, and Miami.

“It’s definitely growing in popularity,” said Cara Rockwell, who researches agroforestry and sustainable food systems at Florida International University. “Food security is one of the huge benefits.”

There are also numerous environmental benefits: Trees improve air quality, suck carbon from the atmosphere, and create habitat for wildlife, said Mikaela Schmitt-Harsh, an urban forestry expert at James Madison University in Virginia. “I think food forests are gaining popularity alongside other urban green space efforts, community gardens, green rooftops,” she added. “All of those efforts, I think, are moving us in a positive direction.”

Researchers say food forests are unlikely to produce enough food to feed everyone in need of it. But Schmitt-Harsh said they could help supplement diets, especially in neighborhoods that are far from grocery stores. “A lot has to go into the planning of where the food forest is, when the fruits are harvestable, and whether the harvestable fruits are equitably distributed.”

She pointed to the Philadelphia Orchard Project as an emblem of success. That nonprofit has partnered with schools, churches, public recreation centers, and urban farms to oversee some 68 community orchards across the city. Their network of orchards and food forests generated more than 11,000 pounds of fresh produce last year, according to Phil Forsyth, co-executive director of the nonprofit.

Some of the sites in Philadelphia have only three or four trees. Others have over 100, said Kim Jordan, the organization’s other executive director. “We’re doing a variety of fruit and nut trees, berry bushes and vines, pollinator plants, ground cover, perennial vegetables — a whole range of things,” Jordan said.

The community food bank in Tucson started its project in 2021, when it bought six shade huts to shelter saplings. Each hut can house dozens of baby trees, which are grown in bags and irrigated until they become sturdy enough to be planted in the ground. Over the past three years, Merchant has partnered with a high school, a community farm, and the Tohono O’odham tribal nation to nurse, plant, and maintain the trees. So far they’ve only put a few dozen saplings in the ground, and Merchant aims to ramp up efforts with a few hundred more plantings this year. His initial goal, which he described as “lofty and ambitious,” is to plant 20,000 trees by 2030.

The food bank is also organizing workshops on growing, pruning, and harvesting, as well as courses on cooking with mesquite flour. And they’ve hosted community events, where people bring seed pods to pound into flour — a process that requires a big hammer mill that isn’t easy to use on your own, Merchant said. Those events feature a mesquite-pancake cook-off, using the fresh flour.

Merchant is drawing on a model of tree-planting that Lancaster, the urban forester, has been pioneering for 30 years in a downtown neighborhood called Dunbar Spring. That area was once as barren as much of southern Tucson, but a group of volunteers led by Lancaster — who started planting velvet mesquite and other native trees in 1996 — has built up an impressive canopy. Over three decades, neighborhood foresters have transformed Dunbar Spring’s bald curbsides into lush forests of mesquite, hackberry, cholla and prickly pear cactus, and more — all plants that have edible parts.

“There are over 400 native food plants in the Sonoran Desert, so we tapped into that,” Lancaster said. “That’s what we focused our planting on.”

The Dunbar Spring food forest is now what Lancaster calls a “living pantry.” He told Grist that up to a quarter of the food he eats — and half of what he feeds his Nigerian dwarf goats — is harvested from plants in the neighborhood’s forest. “Those percentages could be much more if I were putting more time into the harvests.” The more than 1,700 trees and shrubs planted by Lancaster’s group have also stored a ton of water — a precious commodity in the Sonoran Desert — by slurping up an estimated 1 million gallons of rainwater that otherwise would have flowed off the pavement into storm drains.

Another well-established food forest skirts the Old West Church in Boston, where volunteers have spent a decade transforming a city lawn into a grove of apple, pear, and cherry trees hovering over vegetable, pollinator, and herb gardens. Their produce — ranging from tomatoes and eggplants to winter melons — gets donated to Women’s Lunch Place, a local shelter for women without permanent housing, according to Karen Spiller, a professor of sustainable food systems at the University of New Hampshire and a member of Old West Church who helps with the project.

“It’s open for harvest at any time,” Spiller said. “It’s not, ‘Leave a dollar, and pick an apple.’ You can pick your apple, and eat your apple.”

Merchant wants to apply the same ethic in Tucson: mesquite pods for all to pick — and free pancakes after a day staying cool in the shade.

Max Graham wrote this article for Grist.

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Saving New Mexico residents money as they adapt to climate change is the goal behind an Earth Day event in Albuquerque Sunday.

The Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club has teamed up with partners to offer residents free energy savings plans.

Camilla Feibelman, director of the chapter, said the urgency of climate change is obvious in New Mexico after a decadelong drought followed by the state’s largest wildfire ever in 2022. She explained the weekend event will focus on helping people develop a personal electrification plan and steps to get started.

“That might be getting credits or benefits for better insulating your home, or changing out your windows, or switching to an electric vehicle or moving to new, more energy-efficient appliances,” Feibelman outlined.

The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act provides tax incentives to households and agencies to increase energy efficiency. The state of New Mexico has additional benefits available.

Sierra Club volunteers will serve as “energy guides” as they walk visitors through their options during Sunday’s event from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Balloon Fiesta Park.

Feibelman acknowledged many people feel helpless about climate change but noted there are personal choices which can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And she stressed you don’t have to be a homeowner to access benefits, because many are also available to renters.

“There are increasing benefits according to income, basically there’s a benefit for anything you might want to do from water savings to energy savings, from transportation to the indoor air quality in your home,” Feibelman emphasized.

Feibelman encouraged people interested in making a personal electrification plan to visit the state’s Electrify New Mexico website for more information. She added those who cannot attend the Sunday event can still sign up for energy savings plans through the Sierra Club and receive contacts for local vendors, financing methods for upgrades and information about tax rebates.

Disclosure: The Sierra Club contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Energy Policy, Environment, and Environmental Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.

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As the Sunshine State grapples with rising temperatures and escalating weather events such as hurricanes, a new study sheds light on the pivotal role of Florida’s Wildlife Corridor in mitigating the effects of climate change coupled with a surge of new residents.

The report is trumpeted as a first-of-its-kind study showcasing how the 18 million acres of the Wildlife Corridor, which runs throughout the entire state, ease the worst impact of climate change. It paints a picture of investing in resources supporting cohabitation to be mutually beneficial with nature and the economic growth coming from people who flock to the state to enjoy it.

Colin Polsky, professor and founding director of the School of Environmental, Coastal and Ocean Sustainability at Florida Atlantic University, and the study’s lead author, said the corridor benefits the state.

“It’s an attempt to welcome the 1,000 people a day approximately who move to Florida, but to do so in a way that allows for the wildlife to continue to thrive,” Polsky explained.

About 10 million of the 18 million acres of corridor are permanently conserved. The report calls on state leaders to keep working on investing the remaining 8 million. In March, the governor and Cabinet touted the state’s largest investment in decades, a 25,000-acre acquisition within the Caloosahatchee-Big Cypress Corridor.

Joshua Daskin, project manager and director of conservation at the Archbold Biological Station, said since the corridor effort was steering billions of dollars toward land conservation in the state, the report’s focus is on showing the science behind it all.

“Climate resilience is one area in which land conservation can help both nature and people,” Daskin pointed out. “But no one had assembled the state of the science for all of the ways that climate resilience can be impacted by land conservation.”

The report shows 24% of all Florida properties have a more than one in four chance of being affected by flooding in the next 30 years. To combat it, one solution is to keep floodplains undeveloped. The corridors have 10 million acres of floodplain. The report also recommends mixed-use development to minimize habitat fragmentation and keep working lands in production.

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Ballots are due back in the Montana Secretary of State’s office later this week, as lawmakers decide

whether to override Gov. Greg Gianforte’s veto of a high-profile funding bill that would reapportion money from the state’s marijuana sales tax.

Gianforte vetoed Senate Bill 442 after the Montana Senate had adjourned last session, which left lawmakers no chance to override it.

It would fund veterans’ services, provide permanent property tax relief for vets & Gold Star families, invest in county road maintenance, and support land conservation and habitat management.

Montana Wildlife Federation Executive Director Frank Szollosi said the legislation has received broad support inside and outside the capitol.

“That’s why agricultural interests have supported 442,” said Szollosi. “Counties have supported 442, and the conservation & sporting communities have supportted 442, and local governments.”

Gianforte said in his veto note that using state funds for local responsibilities such as road improvements is a “slippery slope.”

A veto override requires the approval of two-thirds of lawmakers. Ballots are due back in the Secretary of State’s office on Thursday.

Twenty percent of the sales tax revenue would be used specifically for habitat conservation – but equally important, supporters say, is the money that would be spent to improve veterans’ programs and rural infrastructure.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Mike Lang – R-Malta – said S.B. 442 would provide services for groups that have not historically shared common interests.

“I just want to bridge the gap,” said Lang, “between recreationists and hunters, and private landowners.”

Critics of SB 442 have argued the funding distribution formula isn’t equitable, while supporters say it directs resources towards those who need them most.

The bill passed the Legislature with 130 of 150 votes in last year’s session.

Disclosure: Montana Wildlife Federation contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Endangered Species & Wildlife, Environment, Public Lands/Wilderness. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.

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