Picture a garden near a highway, lush despite the lack of rain and full of butterflies and hummingbirds, where foxes hide and raptors hunt. If the thought of a forest came to mind, it was half correct because that is the image–and the goal–of the Festival Beach Food Forest. Begun with pecan trees and continuing to expand, this food forest is designed as an example of regenerative agriculture: organic with pests being taken care of by the ecosystem, developed by steady crops and habitats for predators to hide, both night and day. What makes this food forest incredible is not just the collage of symbiosis, but that it was created with complete community engagement. Across Austin and especially in East Austin, there have been a number of projects which have been created with very little dialogue between residents and developers; not so with this project. At a fundraising event for the project, Jonathan Barona and Jodi Lane described the miles of pavement walked and the doors knocked on to develop relationships with the surrounding neighbors. Instead of assuming that they knew what was best, the Festival Beach Food Forest has worked with all nationalities and with the constituents surrounding the area to ensure inclusion for the forest’s development.
The food forest is adjacent to Festival Beach Community Garden, which is managed by Julio Perez. Approved by resolution on August 27, 2009, the community garden was designed to create 2.5 acres of gardening access for surrounding residents to relocate the previous garden, El Jardin Alegre, and is run by a steering committee. At the moment, the lack of rain has meant that more watering gets done, but throughout the garden, one can see summer squash, peppers, spices and various fruit trees past the prime blooming season.Volunteers and individuals come in and maintain their own plots, harvesting at their own paces with tools provided by the garden stewards. Before the food forest was conceptualized in 2013, Julio was already using regenerative agriculture techniques in the garden as property manager. Parts of the garden are overgrown not because of a lack of maintenance, but to protect the helpful hunters, and Julio has captured videos of foxes coming through, taking care of any pests lurking among the beds. Across the fence, pecans have started to drop, availing themselves for all populations. Julio works with multiple organizations to raise awareness and encourage gardening among the young and old alike, and has been on board with the food forest since its inception. Thanks to extensive community engagement, the Festival Beach is one of the successful community engagement projects and had been on track for further involvement.
Enter Farah Rivera, who makes her home at the Rebekah Baines Johnson Center. Farah had her own plot at the garden when Julio asked her if the RBJ Center would be interested in receiving produce from the garden. After training with the Central Texas Food Bank, Farah began a food pantry that also partners with the Healthy Options Program for the Elderly. Now, the food pantry accepts not just food from the garden, but from Wheatsville, Trader Joe’s, and Sprouts, not to mention a bevy of prepared food that arrives during the week. The residents of the RBJ center are on fixed incomes, and have both subsidized food and subsidized plots at the garden, making the pantry essential for diet variety. Julio has mentioned plans to continue educating senior communities in gardening, which is a proven therapy for people with reduced mobility and memory issues. Farah has also increased both volunteer involvement and the partnerships for the pantry, which includes a number of churches, and she is always looking to offer to those in need. The tenant board has also been actively involved in improvements around the garden so that RBJ residents can more easily work in the garden, which is next to the access road of IH-35.
Not surprisingly, a developer saw this social and biological ecosystem, and decided to transform it into a commodity. Already, the garden has lost the back fence, making it vulnerable to those who take the carefully cultivated food that people pay to produce, as opposed to what would be available in the food forest. When Julio confronted both the developer and the city, he was greeted with shrugs and denied access to a land survey. It is a strategic move to never show residents a survey: if they never know where the property lines actually are, then the developers can remain blameless as they continue to encroach within the garden’s boundaries. Three times already, the developer has moved the property lines, tearing down a cultivated fence to make room for a dumpster, not even considering partnership with the community garden, which has a compost pile. There has been no collaboration with the community garden, the food forest, or the RBJ Center, except to halt the waiting list for residents, refusing to rebuild the fence, and ignoring the needs of infrastructure in the area. The city has been complicit in its desire to expand the tax base, and there have been no promises to abate the inevitable increase in land value that will arise from the luxury development and people’s obsession with kitschy nooks where other people have made their homes.
For now, the food forest is still underway, Julio continues to tend the community garden and Farah is still taking donations to feed the needy. Nearby, the city has closed a bathroom and is working with other developers to make an expansive luxury shopping center right next to the lake. In its mind, no promises have been made so no promises have been broken, leaving the residents to watch and their ecosystem is destroyed for profit.