Peak Seeker: A Floating ‘Forest’ Garden Brings Public Food to NYC

Developing a quality public food system is becoming critical as access to fresh, healthy food in both urban and rural areas grows more difficult — not to mention expensive. For families on a limited budget, this often means going without fruits and vegetables and filling up on unhealthy fast-food meals or convenience foods.

As many as 48 million Americans — one in seven — are “food insecure,” or lack access to nutritious foods necessary for healthy living, according to Feeding America. Often, low-income Americans are forced to choose between paying for food or medical care, which can worsen chronic health problems.

This food insecurity problem spurred artist Mary Mattingly into action. What if fresh food could be delivered to the people of New York City as a free public service? By rethinking the handling of this public health issue, Mattingly spearheaded the Swale collaborative floating food forest project, which is a 5,200-square-foot edible forest garden growing on top of a barge. At once a sculpture and a public service, the floating food project brings fresh fruits and vegetables to New Yorkers at no cost.

The Urban Farming Problem

Many urban areas are considered food deserts, where affordable, quality foods aren’t available within a reasonable distance. In New York, where one in six people faces food insecurity, more than 10,000 trucks deliver food to 8.4 million inhabitants each day, exposing them to chemicals and pollutants from the supply and waste chains, Mattingly notes in an interview with Edible Brooklyn. This need opens up a great opportunity for public food programs and solutions.

The problem is that a city law prohibits growing public food on public land. This law doesn’t extend to waterways, however, which inspired Mattingly’s idea for growing an edible garden on a barge that’s solar-powered and has its own irrigation system. The platform is to remind others that access to healthy food and clean water are a human right.

A Community Affair

Bringing public food to public places, Swale visits different boroughs throughout New York by docking at spots such as Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx, Governors Island’s Yankee Pier and Brooklyn Bridge Park. About 500 visitors each day explore the garden and pick their own broccoli, kale, cauliflower, bok choy, tomatoes, berries and even hang out and have lunch.

Designed and tested by a collective of local engineers, artists, landscape architects, gardeners, students and educators, the project is sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts.

A Growing Movement

The urban agriculture movement is growing, and New York is at the heart of it. In fact, the city is home to the largest rooftop farms in the world, according to CityMetric. Although Swale has been docked at various points throughout the city, the ultimate goal is to find it a permanent home. As part of the urban agriculture movement, Swale is a highly visible reminder that access to healthy food is a real issue. If we work together, we can be less dependent on large-scale supply chains and help others in our community.

The Peak Seeker Series highlights notable men and women who, through the use of energy, technology and more, have made a real difference. They’re the renegades of the world, and this periodical highlights that social impact.

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