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Atlanta’s Pioneering Urban Food Forest: A Green Revolution

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When an old pecan farm in southern Atlanta’s suburbs shut down, the vacant land was quickly designated for townhouse development. However, those plans fell through, and the property went into foreclosure.

This caught the attention of the Conservation Fund, which acquired the area in 2016 and embarked on an unexpected project: establishing the largest free food forest in the country.

With a grant from the U.S. Forest Service and a collaboration between the city of Atlanta, the Conservation Fund, and Trees Atlanta, this 7.1-acre site now thrives with over 2,500 organic edible and medicinal plants.

It’s just 10 minutes away from the world’s busiest airport before the global health crisis hit—Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Located in the Browns Mill area of southeast Atlanta, this food forest provides a much-needed resource for locals, as the nearest supermarket requires a 30-minute bus ride.

“Ensuring access to green spaces and nutritious food is core to our mission,” said Michael McCord, a certified arborist and edible landscape expert managing the forest.

This forest is part of Atlanta’s broader initiative to ensure all 500,000 residents have access to healthy food options within a half-mile by 2022. Interestingly, until 2014, it was illegal to grow food on residential properties in the city.

The food forest stands out as a critical and rare resource in Atlanta, where food insecurity affects one in six Georgians.

In the Browns Mill community alone, one in three residents lives below the poverty line, and a quarter of Atlanta’s population resides in areas so lacking in grocery stores that some advocates refer to the situation as “supermarket redlining.”

McCord added, “We frequently host student field trips here. For many kids, it’s their first encounter with a garden, farm, or forest. They get a full day immersed in urban agriculture and forestry, which is quite unique.”

Now under the parks department’s stewardship, the forest is maintained by over a thousand volunteers and local residents. On any given day, you might see up to 50 volunteers tending to the land.

Carla Smith, an Atlanta city councilwoman instrumental in launching the project, remarked, “It’s truly a park for everyone.

Every visit reveals a community deeply engaged and appreciative of the fresh, healthy produce available. There’s a shared understanding to take only what you need.”

While there have been minimal issues with over-harvesting, forest management prioritizes local community members during food distribution, with volunteers managing the harvests from non-plot areas.

As cities like Seattle, Portland, and Asheville also adopt edible landscapes, harvesting thousands of pounds of food annually, McCord sees this as a positive trend in urban agriculture.

“Every element of a park, from trees to trails to bees to vegetables, offers a chance to educate about sustainability and farming,” he noted.

Atlanta’s Innovative Urban Farming Initiatives

The City of Atlanta, through its online platform AgLanta, is spearheading an urban agriculture initiative led by the Mayor’s Office of Resilience.

This program is designed not only to bolster the city’s resilience but also to draw in residents, encourage community engagement, and highlight abundant business opportunities within Atlanta, Georgia.

In early 2021, Atlanta unveiled its first Community Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill Park. Situated in an area known for limited access to fresh produce, this innovative park model is transforming how the community interacts with food and nutrition.

It offers an array of fresh nuts, fruits, vegetables, herbs, and mushrooms for the public to enjoy.

Mario Cambardella, a landscape architect and the former Director of Urban Agriculture for the City of Atlanta, explains the concept behind the food forest: “Every forest is a food forest, which is any healthy ecosystem that provides food, nourishment, and shelter to all its inhabitants.

It’s crucial that the city government helps foster this environment where both wildlife and people can flourish, sharing and nurturing the natural bounty.”

Atlanta's Innovative Urban Farming Initiatives
Credit: Replate Blog

Community’s Central Role in Urban Agriculture

Spanning 7.1 acres, this food forest stands as the largest of its kind managed by a city in the United States. It boasts several attractions like a community garden, walking trails, and spaces for communal gatherings.

Cambardella notes, “From radishes to sweet peppers, the beauty of this garden is that it’s managed by the community. Everyone has a hand in its cultivation.”

Drawing on his experience with the city’s urban farming projects, Cambardella remarks, “While we have minimal built structures to support food harvesting, we’ve established policies and guidelines for all participants, local or otherwise. The aim is for everyone to be conscientious of their impact on both the place and its people.

Sprouting Urban Oasis: America’s Largest Food Forest

Across the United States, over 70 “food forests” are emerging as vibrant hubs for combating food insecurity and fostering urban agriculture.

The largest of these, located just a short distance from the bustling Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, offers a peaceful retreat amid its sprawling 7.1 acres. Here, winding gravel paths guide visitors through lush landscapes.

On a particularly sunny morning, the Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill buzzes with activity as volunteers, including a dedicated mother and her son, diligently clear an area destined to become a tranquil yoga and meditation nook.

Rina Saborio, a volunteer, shares her enthusiasm for the initiative, “I wanted to help—it seemed like a fantastic way for us to come together as a community.

These forests are not just green spaces but are integral to the food justice movement, differing from traditional community gardens.

Funded by grants and dependent on volunteers, these projects focus on cultivating perennials and have specific guidelines on food distribution and harvesting to ensure they effectively serve the local community.

Since its inception in 2019, Atlanta’s Urban Food Forest has set out to be a beacon of urban agriculture and a critical source of accessible food—a challenge exacerbated by the recent economic downturn triggered by the pandemic.

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Nestled in the food-scarce Lakewood neighborhood, just a short commute from downtown Atlanta, the project addresses the urgent need for fresh produce in an area where convenience stores outnumber healthy food outlets.

Celeste Lomax, who leads community engagement at the site, is a passionate advocate for the forest’s educational role.

With a radiant smile, she explains, “We’re using this space for so much more than just food production. We offer composting workshops, beehives, bat houses, and a vibrant herb garden. We’re teaching people about self-healing through diet, conducting wellness retreats, and hosting outdoor yoga sessions. This place is about nurturing health and wellness, far beyond offering free food.

Sprouting Urban Oasis: America's Largest Food Forest
Credit: allrecipes

The land, with its history of pecan farming, lay dormant for years and nearly became a housing development. However, it was preserved as a community green space in 2016 thanks to efforts by Trees Atlanta, The Conservation Fund, and a USDA Forest Service grant.

Food access remains a critical issue in Atlanta. A 2017 report highlighted that over 25% of residents in certain areas experience food insecurity—a statistic that has prompted increased reliance on food banks, as per the Metro Atlanta Speaks survey.

Before the pandemic, Lomax was known for distributing herbal tea packs to volunteers after their shifts, a tradition she hopes to revive.

Once our plants thrive again, I’m excited to start sharing more with the volunteers. They’ve invested their sweat here, and it’s my joy to give back to those who contribute so much to our community,” she says with hope.

How was the food forest created? The community played a crucial role in shaping the food forest.

At the outset, Cambardella and her team engaged the community with questions such as, “What does a food forest mean to you?” and “What features would you like our forest to have?” These discussions helped them understand how the community envisioned using this space.

The project included extensive community outreach, with numerous meetings held both on the site and at the local community center to explore potential uses for the area.

Cambardella dubbed this initiative the “community orchard,” where locals expressed their desire to plant a variety of year-round fruit trees, herbs, and medicinal plants. They aimed to explore and adopt diverse planting techniques.

The community’s efforts were fruitful, particularly in adopting varied planting methods. For example, the forest includes strawberry patches utilizing the Hügelkultur technique, where mounds made from decaying wood help retain moisture.

We collaborated with landscape and ecological designers to position these mounds along the natural contours of the land,” Cambardella explained.

Signage plays a crucial role in the food forest, providing guidance on how to use and enjoy the different plants safely, indicating which parts are edible and which are not.

Atlanta’s Agricultural Heritage Historically, the site was a working farm, home to one of Atlanta’s oldest pecan orchards. Before the city acquired it, Ruby and Willie Morgan farmed the land, often leaving surplus produce on fence posts for neighbors.

Today, the city aims to maintain the area as a communal space that offers nutritional, social, and environmental benefits.

One of the significant advantages of food forests is their ability to manage stormwater runoff. In this design, stormwater is directed through the garden, helping to maintain moisture levels while any excess is managed by a purpose-built rain garden.

This site not only aids in water management but also serves as a living museum of Atlanta’s agricultural past, spotlighting the historical contributions of African American farmers to the community.

‘Living Systems in Urban Spaces’

In 2019, the US Department of Agriculture highlighted a concerning trend: around 35.2 million Americans were struggling with food insecurity.

Fast forward to the following year, a combined effort by The Guardian and Northwestern University revealed an even more alarming situation.

Before the holiday season, a staggering one in four Americans, totaling 81 million people, were grappling with inadequate food supplies.

This investigation also shed light on a troubling racial disparity, noting that Black households experienced hunger at a rate four times higher than white households.

The pioneering Dr. George Washington Carver Edible Park in Asheville, North Carolina, opened as the first public food forest in the U.S. in 1997.

Over the years, this concept has spread nationwide, with over 70 public food forests identified by Sustainable America by 2018.

These urban green spaces, although smaller and visually different from vast rural farms, play a crucial role in urban food security, as noted by Mark Bittman in his book, ‘Animal, Vegetable, Junk.’

Michael Muehlbauer, the Orchard Director at the Philadelphia Orchard Project, defines food forests as ecosystems that mimic natural forests while yielding edible products for humans.

These systems not only provide food but also foster biodiversity, offer habitats for wildlife, improve urban green cover, and serve as carbon sinks.

Muehlbauer, an early volunteer at Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest, has witnessed firsthand the community-driven transformation of public lands into vibrant, food-producing ecosystems.

Elise Evans, a key figure at the Food Forest Collective, explains that while their projects are not food banks, they empower community members to actively participate and learn about sustainable food production.

The Beacon Food Forest, in particular, has been a beacon of community and collaboration, providing free access to food and serving as an educational model for sustainable urban agriculture.

Community involvement is fundamental to the success of such initiatives, a sentiment echoed by Evans and J Olu Baiyewu, Urban Agriculture Director of the City of Atlanta.

Baiyewu emphasizes the importance of deep, ongoing community engagement to ensure the success and sustainability of urban agriculture projects.

Meanwhile, Muehlbauer highlights the challenges, such as volunteer burnout and the need for effective organization to sustain these green havens.

In summary, these urban food forests are more than just sources of food; they are vibrant, communal spaces that connect people to their food, their environment, and each other, making a profound impact in the fight against food insecurity and fostering a sense of community in an increasingly digital world.

Future Vision and Expansion

“Lomax was sharing some herbal wisdom with an Atlanta volunteer, pointing out the anise nestled next to the lavender. ‘It’s great for stomach issues and also helps with sleeplessness,’ he mentioned, suggesting its use both in teas and tinctures.

Meanwhile, Rina Saborio wrapped up her day of volunteering and approached to bid farewell, holding a bunch of freshly-picked chives.

She had been working alongside her son, clearing a section of the forest. In a gesture of appreciation, Lomax let her keep the chives as a thank you for her efforts.

‘This project is so much more than we ever imagined,’ Lomax reflected. ‘We started off thinking we were just gardening, but it has evolved into a sanctuary of sorts. I remember a visitor who was moved to tears, finding peace and stress relief here.

It really highlighted the transformative power of this place. It’s not just about raising children; it’s about a community coming together to make a real impact.’

Looking ahead, Mario discussed the community’s long-term plans for the Browns Mill Food Forest.

‘We’ve only developed a small portion of the land so far, about two and a half acres,’ he said. ‘There are still four more acres to go.’ The team regularly revisits their master plan, ensuring it aligns with the evolving needs of the community.

Mario emphasized the ongoing nature of the project. ‘People often ask when the food forest will officially start or have its grand opening,’ he shared.

‘But in truth, it began the moment we planted the first seed. This forest is meant to grow, evolve, and be enjoyed by all who visit, endlessly adapting and flourishing.'”

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