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New food forest will bring year-round foraging to Tacoma’s South End

A woman with purple hair to their shoulders in a denim jumper, purple blouse, and long purple sweater stands next to a man in a light puffer coat in gray pants galoshes with tall blueberry bushes in the background. Next to both of them a green, white, and blue sign that read, "Metro Parks Tacoma - Charlotte's Blueberry Park."
Bellamy Pailthorp
On the left, Metro Parks Tacoma project coordinator Kevin Johnson, and on the right, Rachel Wilkie, VP and grant writer with the South End Neighborhood Council, stand next to the sign for Charlotte Blueberry Park, which will soon become a food forest.

In Tacoma's South End, 100-year-old blueberry shrubs tower 10-12 feet tall in neat rows at Charlotte’s Blueberry Park. There are five varieties and about 5,000 shrubs, which currently have bare red branches that give the park a rosy hue.

The park spans 22 acres - an oasis in an area east of Interstate 5 that otherwise feels mostly devoid of nature. It was once a farm that neighborhood activists saved from redevelopment, led by Charlotte Valbert, for whom the park was re-named in 2010.

Every July and August, anyone can come pick the fruit here, completely free of charge. But there aren’t a lot of trees near the blueberries. And the bounty is only available two months of the year.

“So the project we pitched – we're actually standing in it now – was to put in 40 fruit and nut trees,” said Rachel Wilkie, the vice chair of Tacoma’s South End Neighborhood Council.

A grassy lawn sits between wide asphalt pathways near the rows of blueberry shrubs, the area is fully exposed to sun and gets quite hot in summer. She said that the lawn will become the heart of the food forest, with layered planting of other food crops beneath the canopy of the new trees.

“Our goal with this food forest is that any time of year that somebody walks into this park, they will be able to take something nutritious away with them,” said Kevin Johnson, the project coordinator for Metro Parks Tacoma.

He said adding a food forest will provide dual benefits to an area of the city that has registered summer temperatures as much as 14 degrees hotter than wealthier parts of town.

“The South End of Tacoma is a place that lacks trees. So just adding to that cooling of the area and then that added oxygen production to offset carbon [emissions] is going to be a huge help long term for this area, and Tacoma as a greater community.”

The proposal was one of five in Tacoma that won big grants last week for urban forestry from the state Department of Natural Resources. The five grants total more than $1.3 million dollars, to improve tree equity and enhance urban tree canopy in the largest city in Pierce County.

The other Tacoma grant recipients were:

  • A tree inventory program powered by volunteers and run by Washington State University.
  • The City of Tacoma for planting and restoration work on trees along Safe Routes to School walking corridors.
  • Metro Parks Tacoma for canopy assessment and program planning.
  • And to an expansion into the Hilltop neighborhood of the Green Blocks community engagement tree planting program run by Tacoma Tree Foundation.

Wilkie wrote the grant application for the food forest project. She said this part of the city suffers from a history of discrimination. It’s one of the most racially diverse parts of Tacoma. It was redlined by racist banks and lenders who deemed it too risky to invest in. As a result, there aren’t as many trees as in wealthier neighborhoods.

A map of Tacoma divided into U.S. Census block groups each shaded to assess their urban tree canopy on a scale of 0-100%.
Plan-It Geo
City of Tacoma
Tacoma's urban tree canopy cover from an assessment published in 2018.

The South End’s proximity to I-5 also exposes residents here to more air pollution, which harms their health. It’s a food desert, meaning most people can’t walk to a grocery store.

But thousands of new residents are expected in the area soon, because of new zoning, Wilkie said.

“So these residents that really will not have the opportunity to grow food in their own property will have a place to come and harvest and experience nature and get some cooling,” she said. “They’ll have this space. It’s for them.”

The grant from DNR is for $171,000. Planting will start this fall after multiple community gardening groups give input on the mix of trees and other plants they want to include in the new food forest.

The city has a goal of getting its tree canopy coverage to 30% by 2030 but is struggling to get over 20%.

This year's urban forestry grants — $8 million for 45 projects statewide — is by far the largest amount ever to support tree-care and tree-planting in Washington cities. It is about 14 times higher than the previous single-year record of $550,000 awarded. Still, the state said there were about three times as many applicants as funding available.

It comes in the wake of the heat dome in 2021 that killed more than 100 people in Washington. State Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said that was a motivating factor and that trees and tree equity “are no longer a nice-to-have, they are a must-have.”

The projects will be evaluated using a tree equity score, with the goal of getting every neighborhood in the state on equal footing.

The money comes from a combination of federal and state funds from the Inflation Reduction Act and Washington’s Climate Commitment Act.

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to