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Floating Food Forest Finds Legal Loophole To Deliver Free Produce

August 22, 2016Posted by Terry Turner

America has experienced a bumper crop of urban farms in recent years, but laws against growing food in public spaces makes it difficult for people in certain cities to grow or access fresh food in their respective neighborhoods.

Fortunately, two artists in New York City have found a loophole in local laws that’s literally big enough to sail a boat through.

Their project, known as “Swale” is a floating food forest, part art installation, part urban farm, and all built on a 130-foot-barge currently cruising New York’s waterways. The mobile oasis floats between the city’s food deserts, delivering a moveable feast of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“People come onboard and they can pick fresh food,” said Mary Mattingly, the artist who cooked up Swale. ““They  seem really pleasantly surprised and really want to take care of the space in a way I would hope would translate or transfer to land.”

While New York has greater access to fresh produce than most urban areas in the U.S., about 28% of New Yorkers live in food deserts. A food desert is typically a low-income neighborhood where the nearest grocery store or other fresh produce source is a mile or more away.

In these areas, a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in these areas are attributed to spikes in obesity and diseases like diabetes, as people must to turn to more unhealthy diets.

Swale’s floating buffet features more than 75 different kinds of produce ripe for the picking. People are free to take whatever they want from the floating farm which features ten different kinds of fruit trees rising above vegetable crops, herbs, and tubers, and anyone can walk off the Swale barge with a basket full of persimmons, artichokes, asparagus, lettuce, and strawberries.

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The name, Swale, comes from the term for a low-lying land feature between marshy pieces of land. Among scientists, it’s become a slang term of approval or excellence. Both are fitting descriptions as the low, flat barge docks to the excitement and approval of visitors.

Swale grew out of an earlier art project Mattingly was involved with in 2009 called “Water Pod.” She was one of five people who lived on a self-sustaining barge.

Her artistic work caught the attention of A Blade of Grass — which showcases artistic projects that “engage directly with communities to enact ambitious social change.” ABOG named Mattingly to one of its eight fellowships in 2015 and is a lead supporter of the Swale project.

Swale Umbrella

“She is an artist who is changing what art is, who it’s for, and what it does,” Deborah Fisher, founding Executive Director of A Blade of Grass said. “A Blade of Grass nurtures artists like Mary in a way that is specifically geared toward increasing the effectiveness and visibility of their work, and understanding its value within a larger culture.”

“This is the coolest thing I’ve seen this summer,” a woman identifying herself as Vernisa D. wrote in the Swale guestbook, adding that she loved the idea of a mobile community garden.

“I didn’t pick anything out,” visitor Akane Morriss said. “However, what I saw was breathtaking.”

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Even more breathtaking to Mattingly and the 30 or so other people involved with launching Swale is what visitors have given back this summer.

“Some people plant their own plants,” Mattingly said. “People would bring seeds and replace what they took. It just sort of started happening spontaneously. People want to give back and care for it.”

She believes that kind of behavior could translate to land-based public farms, and change long-entrenched opposition to growing food in public spaces.

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While cities including Seattle, Boston, and San Francisco have launched successful projects to grow food in public space, free for anyone who wants it, governments often push back for fear of legal liability.

In New York, the Parks Department has opposed the concept for more than a century for fear foragers would strip patches of land bare in a feeding frenzy. But the department has promoted Swale on its website this summer, listing its stops around the city.

Some even see Swale as a virtual battleship, running the blockade put up around growing food in public space.

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“I love what you’re doing here,” Ben Feldman, a former FoodCorps volunteer wrote in the guestbook. “Legalize public food production!”

Mattingly hopes to keep that dream alive, and Swale afloat for summers to come.

She’s raising money to return the floating food forest to New York’s waterways next summer, and holds out hope she’ll be able to take it ashore as a rising tide of support erodes opposition to public food spaces.

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