Orion Kriegman ’96: Perfecting the Recipe for Urban Food Forests
As executive director of the Boston Food Forest Coalition, he works with neighborhood volunteers to reclaim vacant land and transform it into public parks where food is grown.
In Orion Kriegman’s Boston neighborhood, the Egleston Community Orchard is filled with fruit trees, vegetable beds, bushes, and flowers, and is host to art shows, outdoor movies, festivals, and cultural events.
The lush garden is one of 12 food forests in Boston, where Kriegman is executive director of the Boston Food Forest Coalition, a nonprofit community land trust that works with neighborhood volunteers to reclaim vacant, trash-filled parcels and transform them into public parks where food is grown. Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development has donated land and funding.
While providing local, sustainable, nutritious food is a primary goal, the benefits of food forests go way beyond fruits and nuts, Kriegman says: “A lot of it is about seeking connection, and people trying to improve their communities.”
A Haverford political science major with a peace and conflict studies concentration, Kriegman credits the mentoring he received from then-Assistant Professor Jay Rothman, an expert in conflict resolution, with leading him to a pivotal post-graduation experience: two years working in Guatemala to help implement policies in the 1996 peace accord that ended a 36-year civil war.
His current role builds on more recent experiences in the think-tank world: at Tellus Institute, working on global sustainability issues, and at NET New England, helping to create sustainable and equitable local economies. Along the way, he earned a master’s degree in urban policy and public planning at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
His food forest work, says Kriegman, is simply about trying to build a better world for the next generation, including his young daughters, Brighid, 8, and Sylvia, 5. “As I’ve gotten older,” he says, “the insight is that I’m just one person on a big planet asking what’s the next right thing to do.”
How do food forests impact communities?
Food forests planted in dense urban areas are seeds of hope as well as tangible expressions of joy and beauty. They are interactive, educational, and bring nature back into the city. The shade from trees mitigates the urban heat island; the unpaved land covered in plants captures rainwater, sequesters carbon, and provides habitat for endangered pollinators and beneficial insects, which are critical parts of the food chain supporting our songbird populations. These oases of life help reduce stress and violence in our neighborhoods, and growing up with regular safe access to green space reduces adverse mental health outcomes, which are more common for urban children. During COVID, these spaces became especially important as collective backyards where people could meet outdoors for socially distanced events and maintain connection in a time of isolation. It is amazing how a small urban lot can have such powerful holistic ripple effects throughout a neighborhood.
Can food forests help counteract what you call our “fragmented, polarized society”?
Food forests not only grow food, they grow relationships between people and the land, ourselves and our diets, and link neighbors in diverse communities, helping people meet and form friendships across divides of race, class, language and culture. They are a space where people weed together, share recipes, or listen to Albanian folk music, and where neighbors who have lived side by side for years may meet for the first time. Spring barbecues and harvest festivals generate moments of connectivity that are a source of community resilience. When a young man was murdered near Egleston Community Orchard, neighbors came out to support his family and friends, planting blueberry bushes to honor his memory. Every year an altar is created on the anniversary of his death. The food forest provided space for mourning and healing, and has become a symbol of peace in the neighborhood.
There are currently 12 Boston Food Forest Coalition sites. Is there a demand for more?
The desire to rebalance our lives with nature has only intensified over the years as the global crisis deepens. There is more demand—from neighbors, schools, churches, and temples—to transform neglected, trash-strewn lots than we currently have the capacity to support. The vision is to grow our team to develop 35 food forests across Boston by 2025, with the goal of one day supporting 100 or more sites. Our goal is to be a backbone organization supporting community stewards in the ownership, design, development, and care of food forests, and to hold these spaces in perpetuity for future generations to enjoy and literally eat of their fruits.
Can food forests be cultivated in other places?
Food forests are showing up in cities across the United States. What is different about our model is the network of smaller food forests stewarded by neighbors and linked in a citywide coalition. This model has been featured in academic studies and books about how to create community food forests, and we have received inquiries from folks around the country. I believe this is an innovation in green infrastructure for cities adapting to climate change, and will absolutely scale up and be improved upon going forward.
How did your time at Haverford College help shape your career path?
In so many ways, Haverford provided me opportunities to learn, explore, and grow. I took part in a peace studies mission to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and spent a summer in South Africa working for the African National Congress supporting the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Most impactful were servicelearning trips during spring break to help rebuild communities hit by hurricanes or to support Habitat for Humanity. The combination of Quaker values, consensus decisionmaking, and lessons about conflict transformation and mediation all set me off in the direction I have chosen, working for equity and justice. Combining that passion with my love for nature and the environment is what has brought me to the work I do today.