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Atlanta creates country’s largest free food forest to address food insecurity in the city

In Atlanta, urban agriculture is being used as a solution to address the issue of food insecurity in the city.

When an unused pecan farm in south Atlanta’s neighborhoods closed, the land was soon reclassified to become the site for townhouses.

But these townhouses were never built, and the lot remained in foreclosure. That’s when Conservation Fund swooped in and bought the land in 2016 to transform it into the country’s largest free food forest.

Food forest in Atlanta

Shannon Lee | The Conservation Fund

Also known as forest gardens, these low-maintenance and sustainable food forests are designed to replicate natural ecosystems. There’s no need to till, weed, fertilize, or irrigate because the gardens mostly contain perennial plants.

Although food forests first became popular in European and North American gardening in the 1980s, the concept has been taking off in recent years as cities are starting to include edible public spaces in their planning.

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With the help of a US Forest Service grant and the partnership among Atlanta city, the Conservation Fund, and Trees Atlanta, the 7.1 acres of land is now growing 2,500 pesticide-free medicinal plants, mushrooms, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

The site is located in the Browns Mill neighborhood of southeast Atlanta, where the nearest grocery store is about a 30-minute bus ride away.

“Access to green space and healthy foods is very important,” says Michael McCord, a certified arborist and expert edible landscaper who helps manage the forest.

This initiative is part of the city’s mission to bring healthy food to Atlanta’s 500,000 residents by 2022. Before 2014, it was illegal to grow food on residential lots in the city, but this has clearly changed with the rise of urban agriculture in the area.

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Food forests are a rarity and necessity in a city like Atlanta, where about 1 to 6 Georgians face food insecurity and 1 in 3 Browns Mill residents live below the poverty line. An estimated 1 in 4 Atlantans also lives in food deserts.

“We host lots of students for field trips, and for a lot of them, it’s their first time at a garden or farm or forest,” McCord said. “So here they get to experience everything urban agriculture and urban forestry all in one day. It’s really special.”

The forest—now owned by the parks department—is also bringing the community together. More than 1,000 volunteers and neighbors go there to help plant, water, and maintain the forest. There can be over 50 volunteers working there in a day alone.

“It’s really a park for everyone, said Carla Smith, an Atlanta city councilwoman who helped start the project. “Every time I go there’s a community there who respects and appreciates the fresh healthy foods. There’s a mentality there that people know to only take what they need.”

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Although there have been a few issues regarding people taking more than they need, the forest managers prioritize community members when food is harvested. Also, food not grown in plots is gathered and distributed by the volunteers, not visitors.

Projects intending to make urban cities more edible are becoming more widespread. There are at least 70 food forests planted across the US. Free food forests in Seattle, Asheville, and Portland, yield thousands of pounds of food each year.

McCord says this is a good indication of urban agriculture moving in the right direction.

“Everything out of a park space is a teachable moment, whether it be trees, trails, bees or vegetables. That’s what’s most important to me — that we’re raising awareness about sustainability and agriculture,” he said.

Hopefully, we see more cities building their own edible public spaces in the coming years.

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