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Newport News nonprofit building an 'edible forest' to boost food access

A persimmon tree is shown
Katherine Hafner
A budding persimmon tree bears fruit at the Newport News food forest.

Read the original story on WHRO's website

For many years, a five-acre plot of land sat vacant in Newport News’ Southeast community.

The grass was mowed regularly, but nothing really happened there, said Tami Farinholt, executive director of the Newport News Green Foundation.

The nonprofit is now working to transform the land into the Peninsula’s first “food forest.”

Also known as a forest garden or edible forest, the concept refers to a public space filled with fruit trees, herbs and vegetables.

Many of the first few tree saplings planted in recent years in Newport News — including figs, persimmons, apples and pears — are already bearing fruit.

“It’s its own little ecosystem. We talk about the birds and the bees and everything being beneficial on the property for the environment,” Farinholt said. “But it has this added benefit of providing food to people.”

The Green Foundation started the project a few years ago when it received the land as a surprise donation from the Sarfan family, who are well-known in the Newport News community, Farinholt said. The property once housed a synagogue.

The new food forest is named after the family and is located on Chestnut Avenue across from the Discovery STEM Academy.

Tree saplings are shown in a field
Katherine Hafner
The first few tree saplings grow at the five-acre food forest on Chestnut Avenue.

The surrounding community experiences some of the city’s highest rates of poverty and food insecurity, meaning many residents either can’t afford healthy food or can’t access it because of distance and lack of transportation.

Farinholt said a convenience store, without fresh food, is the closest option, while the nearest grocery store is 1.5 miles away.

“While that may not seem a great distance, it is, in most cases, a 30-minute walk or a 60-minute bus ride, a feat for those with mobility or transportation issues that might as well be 500 miles,” she said.

In the Southeast area, almost a third of households reported not having enough money to buy food, and more than half said they did not have enough food to eat at least once a week, according to research from Christopher Newport University.

The food forest is free and open anytime for people to stop by and pick their own produce.

Farinholt said the nonprofit is trying to reduce the amount of turf grass onsite — which is environmentally unsustainable and hard to maintain — and replace it with plants that benefit pollinators.

They also plan to build a garden dedicated to food grown for generations by Tsenacommacah Indigenous people in the region, including corn, beans and squash.

Unlike a community garden that requires constant tending, Farinholt said, the trees in the food forest will become self-sustaining.

Eventually the space will include a small market stand and community gathering spaces, said Elizabeth Gilboy, director of the Virginia Tech Community Design Assistance Center, which helped design the food forest.

A map showing a rendering of what the built-out food forest could eventually look like.
Virginia Tech Community Design Assistance Center
A rendering of what the built-out food forest could eventually look like.

Virginia Tech believes it will be the nation’s third-largest edible forest. Gilboy said food forests are still “up and coming.”

Some space will also be dedicated for teachers at the STEM Academy across the street to bring their students for outdoor instruction.

The total project cost will likely reach about $1 million, Farinholt said. They’ve received a little over $150,000 so far in grants and donations.

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