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As Urban Agriculture’s Popularity Rises, What Are the Food Safety Concerns?

On a hillside in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, tomato plants line walkable pathways just off the sidewalk, while, farther uphill, honeybees buzz around various flowing shrubs near a wooden apiary. The urban garden is certainly a unique sight considering its location just blocks from the I-5 freeway and a five-minute drive from two major sports stadiums.

This is the Beacon Food Forest. Despite resembling more of a garden than a wooded forest at the moment, the Beacon Food Forest will join the growing number of public food forests sprouting up around the U.S. when its organizers officially open it later this year. And when it eventually covers the planned seven-acre expanse, it will be one of the largest such projects on public land in the country.

These areas intend to offer sources of free, healthful food to the public, all while educating community members about food production and rehabilitating the local ecosystem. Signs encourage visitors to eat what they see growing, with an emphasis on educated harvesting.

As more neighborhoods integrate urban gardens and food forests into their communities, the question of food safety inevitably arises. While many organizers may not consider food safety a top logistical concern when planning a food forest, what types of food safety concerns do food forests need to address?

The preface to that answer is that the positive side of the projects outweighs the slight risks, said Glenn Herlihy, co-founder of the Beacon Food Forest.

Like any crop sold at a grocery store, a vegetable, fruit or nut harvested from a food forest comes with risks of potential contamination. For instance, wildlife — or even domestic pets — could wander through the area and leave contaminated droppings on or near food.

Herlihy said that food forest crops may pose even less risk compared with store-bought counterparts because consumers personally harvest the food and have a better opportunity to spot any potential contaminants. Compare that to someone shopping for something in the store such as bagged spinach, a product with its share of microbial food safety concerns but which often looks completely clean to the naked eye.

That said, the food forest planners are careful about what leafy greens they allow to be grown. The majority of most public urban agriculture projects are composed of fruits and nuts — the type of crops that aren’t as susceptible to ground-level contamination.

The planners also conduct routine soil sampling. The fact that they cannot install a bathroom on the premises is a testament to the lengths they’ll go to keep it contamination-free, Herlihy said.

Of course, that still can’t guarantee that no person or animal will make efforts to contaminate the food, but that’s a small risk that the planners hope is mitigated by education and maintaining a conscious community spirit.

“As far as keeping an eye on it, getting the community involved is our biggest asset to keeping the park clean,” Herlihy said.

Fostering crops that are less susceptible to contamination is a key component of a safe food forest, said Nicole Civita, assistant professor of agriculture and food law at the University of Arkansas School of Law.

With food forest plans consisting of crops such as plums, apples, pears, figs, persimmons, and Northwestern nuts and berries — including numerous berries not often found in grocery stores — Civita said the planners were limiting the risk of anyone getting sick from a stray contaminant.

One consideration all food forest planners should remain especially mindful about, she said, was ensuring that no invasive or inedible species entered the parks and confused visitors.

“You obviously wouldn’t want some poisonous berry growing next to your huckleberry bushes,” she said.

With other food forests and urban garden projects sprouting up in places such as San Antonio, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and her home of Fayetteville, AR, Civita said that the most important element of a shared food space was clear signage regarding the rules and guidelines for harvesting, such as signs that show when a particular food is ready to be harvested.

Another good idea: Washing stations for folks who want a little more peace of mind before they chomp into a freshly picked piece of fruit — especially with the chance of deer or other animals wandering through the forest beforehand.

“If you just harvested an apple and want to feed it to your child, maybe it would be nice if you could wash it first,” she said.

“I love the concept of a food forest, and it can do a whole lot of good for a community,” Civita added. “From the risk-management side, a lot of it is mitigated with good planning and thoughtful design. With good planning, we can really enrich people’s lives and diets.”

Planning and community engagement with education is the most important element of a food forest, Herlihy said. These spaces are meant to expose people to agricultural processes and native foods they might not otherwise experience.

“In urban agriculture, it’s all about people and their relationship to the plants,” he said. “Then comes the food.”

Top photo: A woman picks kale from a private plot at the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, WA. Along with providing food to the general public, the food forest has a small number of privately maintained plots available for a fee. Second photo: A view of Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood from between some edible plants at the Beacon Food Forest.

© Food Safety News
  • pawpaw

    Compared to veggies and fruits (fresh or processed) coming from China, I choose the local foods, esp. if the soils are being tested. See recent FSN articles re: concerns about Chinese food.

  • P. B. Ledyard

    I would be curious how they address the potential of lead contamination of root vegetables.
    http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2010/09/29/130212437/fresh-vegetables-but-hold-the-lead

  • Lindsey

    Not installing a restroom is a much greater risk than having one within walking distance for the visitors. There should also be hand washing stations beside the restroom facilities and possibly at the entrance of the garden. Everyone handling the produce has the chance to contaminate it and not acknowledging that possibility is risky.