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Fonticello Food Forest cultivates produce, community

A sign that says Fonticello Food Forrest stands at the entrance of a community garden.
Each Wednesday afternoon throughout the year, Fonticello Food Forest holds a free farm stand at its garden located within Carter Jones Park. (Photos: Courtesy Fonticello Food Forest)

Free produce and other food is tucked into a small corner of the Carter Jones Park in Southside along Bainbridge Street. Nestled to the left of the skate park, Fonticello Food Forest is a community garden where visitors can access fruits, veggies and other fresh food every day. 

Each Wednesday afternoon throughout the year, Fonticello holds a free farm stand at the garden. Last week, its stand was overflowing with piles of asparagus, hundreds of green beans and rows upon rows of carrots. A surplus isn’t unusual, according to the organization’s cofounder, Laney Sullivan. 

“It’s over 3,000 pounds of food every week,” Sullivan said. “It’s typical that we have abundance. But it's also typical that it gets taken and used.” 

In 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Southside neighborhood of Richmond was labeled a food desert, meaning that residents living in the area don’t have reliable access to affordable groceries — including fresh produce.  

Whitney Kiatsuranon volunteers to help with the farm stand every week — and said she lives in a food desert. 

“Some of us do live in the middle of a food desert, and we don't have transportation to get to the grocery stores that we need,” said Kiatsuranon. “We're just really trying to make sure that everyone in the community is taken care of.” 

Sullivan and her partner, Jameson Price, started the free farm stand in April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting surge in unemployment. Since 2015, the couple has been operating the community garden, which began with a few persimmon fruit trees. Today, a once-overgrown portion of the park has been transformed into a lush landscape of native, edible plant life, ranging from large thorny blackberry bushes to delicate fragrant herbs.

The farm stand is open noon to 3 p.m. Wednesdays, but visitors can harvest food from the garden throughout the week. 

“All the plants in the food forest are open for public gleaning,” Sullivan said. “We have volunteers who maintain the plants.” 

Jasper Gunn is frequently at the farm stand on Wednesdays, steadily filling their tote bag with fresh produce for themself and their backyard chickens. They live close to the food forest, and said visiting is not only a chance to access critical resources, but also a way to connect with and support their neighbors.

“The main way it's changed my life is actually feeling connected to my community,” Gunn said. “Especially in the isolation that the pandemic has brought, it's really liberating to come together.” 

The food forest also operates as an educational space, according to Sullivan, who said they’ve used the garden to host art and exercise classes for children and adults. 

According to Sullivan, the Fonticello Food Forest also receives donations for its farm stand from local food bank FeedMore, online farmers market Seasonal Roots and local homeless shelter Good Samaritan Ministries. 

When the food forest is unable to give away all the food it receives from those organizations, Sullivan said they donate the remainder to Richmond Food Not Bombs and RVA Community Fridges, two nonprofits also working to combat food insecurity in the area.

Looking toward the future, Sullivan said she hopes Fonticello will inspire other community members to open their own free gardens and farm stands across the city. 

“In this broken system … we’ve been trying to create a model, so that other community groups and community gardens can do the same thing and create more food access for more people in different parts of the city,” she said.

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