Food insecurity is a prevailing issue throughout America, and it has only worsened due to the coronavirus pandemic. According to Feeding America, more than 50 million Americans may be facing food insecurity, with 17 million of them being children. In Atlanta, Georgia, they are taking steps to tackle the matter head on, and hope to build community in the process.
When a dormant pecan farm in south Atlanta foreclosed, it was initially rezoned for townhomes. However, when the townhouses were never built, Atlanta’s Conservation Fund stepped in. In 2016, they bought the 7.1 acres of land and created the nation’s largest free food forest. Though still considered to be in the early stages of growing, soon it will be able to provide large quantities of healthy foods for locals in need. The expansive forest includes garden areas with 2,500 pesticide-free herbs, vegetables, fruits, potatoes, and much more.
With the US Forest Service grant and cooperation between the city of Atlanta, the Conservation Fund, and Trees Atlanta, the city is one step closer to a much larger goal: providing healthy foods within half a mile of 85% of Atlanta’s residents by 2022. The free food forest is located in the Browns Mill neighborhood, where 1 in every 3 residents live below the poverty line and the nearest grocery store is a 30 minute bus ride away. “Access to green space and healthy foods is very important,” said Michael McCord, certified arborist and expert landscaper for the forest. “And that’s a part of our mission.”
The forest is run by more than 1,000 community volunteers, who assist in the maintenance of the expansive garden areas and help harvest the produce. Now run by the local parks department, the forest is also a great educational tool that helps provide residents with the agency to grow their own food. “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 continued. “So here they get to experience everything urban agriculture and urban forestry all in one day. It’s really special.”
Since the pandemic has put a hold on school outings, the parks department has brought their educational programs online. Through the food forest’s official Facebook page, experts are hosting “virtual grow and learn” seminars and writing blog posts focused on gardening tips and tricks and information about healthy diets. Between the amazing efforts of volunteers, school field trips, and the ever-growing online following, the forest has helped create a sense of community.
“It’s really a park for everyone,” said Carla Smith, an Atlanta city councilwoman who backed 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.” Thankfully, Atlanta isn’t the only city jumping on board the urban food forest initiative. Currently, there are at least 70 free food forests throughout the country, and between Seattle, Portland, and Asheville alone, thousands of pounds of produce are harvested each year.Whizzco