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How the city and non-profit groups rallied a community to create a seven-acre “food forest” that provides fresh fruits, herbs, nuts, and vegetables to anyone who wants to pick them.
Thirty-five food deserts are scattered within Atlanta’s borders. Within these areas, residents have to travel over a mile to buy fresh groceries. Instead, many do their shopping at corner stores that only offer frozen or highly-processed food.
That burden could be lessened for residents of the Lakewood-Browns Mill neighborhood, where a third of the population lives below the poverty line. There, a unique urban farm, actually called a “food forest,” where anyone can harvest their own fresh food, is getting national attention. “The rule is that you only take what you can use,” said City Council member Carla Smith, who has led the project. “Just yesterday, I went over there and got two ears of corn, a handful of green beans, and some thyme. It felt so good cooking with something I had just picked myself.”
Smith is hardly the first person in city government to try to find solutions to fresh food access. The problem rose to prominence in the 1990s, when smaller grocery stores shuttered due to the arrival of nationwide chains like Walmart, forcing some residents to travel farther to get groceries. Since then, the city has tried several initiatives to help residents find healthy foods. Officials have brought fresh produce to public transit stations, partnered with Lyft to provide low-cost rides to grocery stores, and worked with a startup that brings surplus produce from grocery stores to food banks.
The “food forest” is envisioned to be more expansive than just a plot of gardens, home not only to rows of vegetables, mushrooms and herbs, but also to a canopy of fruit and nut trees. The idea was inspired in part by a desire to keep history alive, as the land that the food forest sits on was also a farm before it turned into an empty lot. "Residents still talk about the land's former owners, who left excess produce from their farm on fence posts for neighbors to claim and enjoy," said USDA officials in a statement.
Smith knew the former owners, and watched as they sold their land to a real estate developer in a deal that later fell through, leaving the space vacant. From there, she sprung into action. “I knew we should turn it into a green space, and the neighborhood voted to apply for a grant from the U.S. Forest Service so that we could get it started,” she said.
In 2016, Smith helped the city partner with an organization called the Conservation Fund, so that the land could be purchased immediately. “They held onto the land for us, because if I had started legislation to buy it, I would have had to do appraisals and surveys, and that would have tipped off other developers, so we might have lost the land,” she explained.
Since then, the land has been managed through a partnership between the city of Atlanta, including their Parks and Recreation Department, the Conservation Fund, and a nonprofit called Trees Atlanta.
The urban farm is part of a broader city initiative to strengthen and expand food options in order to ensure that 85% of city residents can find themselves within a half-mile of a fresh food source by 2021.
But Smith said that the food is just one benefit of the food forest. “It’s a huge educational opportunity for kids,” she said. “We have partnerships with local schools, and we have so many volunteers from the neighborhood, coming together, getting to know each other, and learning a lot about planting. Everytime I go, there’s someone from the neighborhood out there, working the land.”
Smith knows many of the most frequent visitors to the land, including the farm’s “mushroom guru,” it’s “herb queen,” and Jyquan Almond, a twelve year old who gives tours through the farm and was recently selected as the youngest-ever recipient of Atlanta’s Park Pride award.
The community has been deeply involved in the planning for the farm since the project first began several years ago. The U.S. Forest Service taught classes about how to work with different types of plants, how to rotate them so that the soil stays mineral-rich, and how to design plots. The neighbors also got to submit landscaping ideas to a design firm, which worked with community feedback to create the final layout.
Atlanta’s first urban farm now joins a list of over 70 public food forests in the country, and at seven acres, is the largest one. As it currently stands, the lot’s northern area is covered in native trees, some of which will be removed, while the south is full of planter boxes that Smith said some neighbors have already filled with squash, corn, and other vegetables.
Once the final concept is realized, though, the whole farm will be lush with greenery. Walking into the space from the south, residents will find bike parking, a walnut and pecan grove left by the previous farm owners, and some blueberry bushes planted last year that are already filled with fruit. Moving further north, there will be community garden plots and an apiary full of bees. Following the central walking path, residents will find fruit orchards—which have already been planted but are not yet mature—an outdoor classroom, composting stations, and mushroom groves.
That master plan is written on the scale of decades, as some of the plants will take about ten years before they bear fruit. Smith said that some people have been concerned about maintaining it for that long, especially with the threat of vandalism and over-harvesting. “That could happen,” Smith conceded. “But you know what? If it does, we’ll start over. It’s the city’s land, and it belongs to everyone.”
Smith said that the food forest is “definitely the best use of the land” and said that other cities should look into similar projects, if they don’t already have one. “Keep your eye open for any plots of land that could work, especially vacant lots,” she advised. “It’s an amazing project for any city to take on. When you’re on the farm, it doesn’t feel like you’re just doing it for yourself. You’re doing it for everyone in the community.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.