Community Food Forests: Building a Core Group

Find the right people for your Zone 0: a group of leaders who will take on a rainbow of diverse roles to get your food forest off the ground.

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by Catherine Bukowski
The center of the Bloomington Community Orchard in Bloomington, Indiana is covered by a large patch of vegetation where visitors can walk among tall feathery shoots of asparagus and strawberry bushes.

When researching the project management phases of community food forests, we found that seeking partnerships was consistent during initiation and planning stages. The next step is naturally to start thinking about whom else you can get on board. Most leaders begin by casually communicating with friends and acquaintances they think would be interested in providing feedback on the idea. They also want to gauge who would commit time and energy to nourishing the idea and championing it in a way that would make caring for the food forest attractive among the next group of stakeholders.

These preliminary discussions with other like-minded individuals are a first and highly important step in identifying a group of community food forest stakeholders. At every site we visited, we encountered a core group of one to five people (occasionally a few more than five); typically two or three comprised the driving force behind the project’s progress and permanence. They were the “parents” who guided the project through the beginning years. The core group can be compared to tribal elders who protect and demonstrate the values of a community food forest and what it symbolizes. In short, they are the cornerstone of the system.

Zone 0 includes people who interact often and work together to approach stakeholders in other zones as the project matures. The ability to collaborate comfortably helps optimize project initiation and keeps morale high during challenging times. People who are passionate about the project and have faith it can work are excellent additions to the team, as are close acquaintances because they are usually the easiest to convince. A takeaway from our own experience managing a community food forest as well as our visits to other projects is that leaders talk about being strategic in terms of whom they involve in the core group or realize afterward that the reason it functioned well was because of the skills or knowledge of someone who was on the team. Ideally, it is best to know whom you will involve and what role(s) they will play.

Based on our research, we have developed a list, which is not exhaustive, of some of the roles to consider when recruiting Zone 0 stakeholders in light of the unique needs of your group. Along the lines of species selection in a food forest ecosystem, we recommend emphasizing diversity and inclusiveness so the group can serve multiple functions across a variety of skills. Core groups made up of a functionally diverse set of individuals who also share a sense of unified purpose helps ensure redundancy and resilience at the same time. This can pay off substantially in case one person burns out or needs to direct their attention to something else. Below are a few examples of key roles core group members often play.

  • Visionary
  • Storyteller
  • Networker
  • Fundraiser
  • Champion
  • Magician
  • Realist
  • Action taker
  • Motivator
  • Party planner
  • Time manager
  • Researcher
  • Facilitator
  • Notetaker
  • Designer

The visionary is usually the person who conceived of the idea, so they are not terribly hard to identify! There will be cases where the visionary has had a strong revelation for the community food forest, but that person may not be talented at communicating to a wide audience. In that circumstance, the storyteller is key. The storyteller will be able to reach some audiences better than others, and a networker might be needed to secure the audience. Once the story has been shared, the fundraiser follows up on leads and has the courage to ask for donations. This person may be a grant writer; if not, the fundraiser needs to work with an experienced grant writer to pursue funding opportunities. The advocate (champion) is a dogged lobbyist for the cause. They have connections or hold a position that can guide project needs through local policies and regulations, package ideas using proper lingo, and speak the language of other stakeholder agencies.

If a group cannot find an advocate, then it should surely look for a magician. We all seem to know someone who is able to get things done with mysterious effectiveness. That person is definitely a good addition to the team. Then there is the realist, the person who understands the idea and supports it and knows how to ground it in practicalities. The realist makes the role of an action taker easier by helping them identify where to get started. The action taker is an organizer, planner, or strategist who can enact the steps needed to help the project unfold, and they typically work closely on logistics. The optimistic motivator is a cheerleader who helps motivate everyone and encourages them to follow the action taker’s lead. They can work with the party planner to make sure events are fun and productive and create a convivial sense of community. Despite what you may assume, motivator and party planner are not easy roles. Multiple leaders remarked on the necessity to keep work parties and volunteer activities lively because the balance between work and fun is highly important to keep people coming back.

One person that can help with fun while also accomplishing goals is the time manager. A time manager understands how long a task or event should take, how to gauge a group’s energy level, and how to judge when to call it quits or to amplify energy by calling in cheerleaders. The time manager is also crucial during meetings to ensure that decisions are made, tasks assigned, and the interaction flows smoothly. People’s time is one of the most important resources they have to invest; in that sense the time manager’s role is just as important as that of any financial advisor. During meetings, the time manager works closely with the facilitator or may even take on the facilitator role. The facilitator understands how to form ground rules for meetings and group discussions, keep people on track to produce results, and may occasionally need to be a mediator.

There is also the need for a note taker who may be thought of as a listener, an observer, or a person who is naturally detail-oriented. We think of the note taker as someone who, either mentally or physically, takes notes during a meeting, a work party, a walk-through of the site, or conversations between volunteers. They keep a pulse on what is happening and maintain notes to inform decisions. In addition to a note taker, a project might benefit from a researcher, the person who is willing to put in the time to collect data and analyze results to inform decisions or strategies. Their data can greatly inform grant applications and help recruit new stakeholders.

One of the most important roles is designer. Designers understand the principles and framework of a community food forest layout and know how to use different techniques for gathering and incorporating community input into a final design. We are all designers in some way, and tapping into this mentality will be very helpful when it comes to planning subcommittees, educational programs, and volunteer opportunities, as well as coordinating a plethora of other details in the initial and subsequent phases of a community food forest.

It is instinctual to turn to friends and acquaintances in Zone 0 to gain support during the first round of stakeholder development. Forming a core group is essential to show others that there is interest and to gain traction. Site leaders have also identified the importance of being intentional about who is approached to strategically shape a core group with diverse strengths. At the same time, leaders repeatedly cited inclusivity as critical to the success of a community food forest. One way to strike a balance between these seemingly disparate approaches is to allow people to determine what role they play based on their own perceived strengths. This can also help increase enthusiasm for the project. It is a basic human need to feel that one belongs to a tribe and plays a meaningful role. For those who are unsure about where they fit in, but enthusiastically want to join in some way, leaders can help guide them into roles until preferences or strengths for a particular task become more apparent.

Establishing a way to function together as a core group and get things done is a step toward minimizing conflict. Having someone skilled at facilitation is necessary for group meetings and can keep things running smoothly. Though it will undoubtedly arise, conflict does not have to be seen negatively and can help the group grow together if guidelines for handling it are set before it arises. Since the person with the initial idea for the food forest instinctively seeks out supportive friends and acquaintances first to form the core group, working out guidelines early on can help protect friendships, keep the project moving forward, and inform strangers joining the group about the initiative’s procedures and culture for working together.

6th Ward Garden Park

Jessica Peterson moved to Helena after finishing a master’s degree in social economics in a program with participants from more than eighty countries. The experience introduced her to different worldviews and ways of thinking about community development. She realized that people make decisions based on the resources they perceive they have, and to make smart decisions, people needed to understand what resources they have locally and how to use them sustainably. From this perspective, she believed developing a community food forest where she lived would help build a resilient community, one that perceives access to food more abundantly and would be empowered by knowing how to feed themselves in a sustainable way.

Jessica shared her vision with other people in the community that she knew were working on local food issues through community gardens, food banks, county extension, and other similar organizations. Her background in community change and organizing helped her strategically build a support team. Jessica put together a one-page flyer describing her proposal and talked to each group to recruit allies. Then she began assembling her core group and picked the first person because of their exuberant energy and excitement about the project. Jessica realized fairly quickly, however, that this person was not the right messenger to deliver the idea to city council. Instead she made connections with Aimee Teegarden, the director of parks and recreation, who knew how to package and present the concept in a way that the city would understand. Instead of calling it a food forest, she referred to it as a community garden with fruit trees.

Next, Jessica decided to approach Caroline Wallace, an AmeriCorps volunteer at the time who worked with Helena Community Gardens and had a landscape architecture degree. Jessica asked Caroline to get involved because she had unique design skills. She also knew Helena Community Gardens was trusted by the city. So far, in this case, Jessica was the visionary and organizer, and so she looked for a messenger and partnered with a designer. She also approached several organizations that were potential allies.

Jessica was aware of the city dynamics–a small town feel where change was slow and new ideas had to be presented carefully. The people she assembled had the attitudes that a new innovative project like a food forest was possible and combined them with organizations that were tried and true and held sway in convincing the city to approve the project. This way, when she was ready to propose the idea to the city, the act of asking would be built on the foundations of organizations with established connections to successful community projects. The approach worked, and the project was easily accepted for the 6th Ward Park without controversy. Eventually, others were purposefully added to the core group due to their time availability, skills in fund-raising, knowledge of plants, and community leadership.

More FromThe Community Food Forest Handbook:

This excerpt is adapted from Catherine Bukowski and John Munsell’s book The Community Food Forest Handbook: How to Plan, Organize, and Nurture Edible Gathering Places (Chelsea Green, 2018) and is printed with permission from the publisher. 

Food Forests

Food forests can help increase biodiversity, protect valuable habitat for beneficial insects, and promote food security and resilience, all while providing an abundant harvest The Food Forest Handbook is a practical manual for the design and management of a home-scale perennial polyculture garden. Order from the Mother Earth News Store, or by calling 800-678-4883