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Inside Atlanta’s First Food Forest

Meet the women who helped transform an urban food desert into a sustainable resource

AAtlanta, Georgia, known for being one of the major cities at the center of the civil rights movement during the 1960s, has in recent years taken on another social justice fight: combatting food deserts.

The urban food forest at Browns Mill Road in southeast Atlanta is an initiative taken on by the city of Atlanta to improve food access and to eliminate food deserts in the impoverished communities in the city. The 7.1 acres of land, which is located in an area identified as a food desert, provides free food, including fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, and nuts to feed families who otherwise do not have access to these resources.

The urban food forest, which is the largest of its kind in the U.S., has the support of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Forest Service’s Community Forest Program (who has given them a grant to fund the project), a long list of community partners, and area schools, to ensure the forest operates efficiently and adequately services the families in the Browns Mill, Lakewood, and surrounding communities in southeast Atlanta. The site was formerly a working farm as recently as the year 2000.

Soisette Lumpkin, head of the Friends of the Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill explains that the communities that the forest is targeted to service are Browns Mill, Lakewood, Thomasville, Norwood Manor, Heritage Valley, and the whole southeast side of Atlanta. Community partners also include the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Conservation Fund, the United States Forest Service, the Georgia Forestry Commission, Trees Atlanta, and the Georgia Food Oasis.

“A desert community is a community that has no fresh vegetables or healthy foods within walking distance,” Lumpkin explains. “That’s what we are trying to do, decrease health disparity and provide healthy food.”

The Friends of the Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill help protect and maintain the beauty of the forest as well as raise money and solicit grants to fund programs for the forest with the help from the city, community partners, churches, and schools.

We are teaching the next generation sustainability tactics and tools. Being able to grow your food is essential to life.

According to Lumpkin, the Friends of the Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill will also be training and teaching the people in the communities how to cook and prepare food.

Erica Holloman-Hill is the Program Manager at the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, a nonprofit in southwest Atlanta that stewards a 26-acre nature preserve. She is also a community partner for the urban food forest. Her expertise is earth system science and educating people on the importance of reconnecting to nature, where she feels the urban food forest is bringing transformation healing to the Black community and connecting the younger generation to the older generation.

“We are talking today about agriculture in the context of food access with the idea of a place that will be able to follow a natural forest succession plan with its full fledge community garden, an herbal garden section, an area that would be available for the community to come and harvest,” said Holloman-Hill. “We are teaching the next generation sustainability tactics and tools. Being able to grow your food is essential to life.”

InIn the forest, there is an existing stream, a footpath, privacy fence, a fragrant flower and herb garden, a vegetable and flower garden, a fruit and nut tree grove, medicinal plants, medicinal and edible mushrooms, and more. All of the beds in the gardens of the urban forest have irrigation and there is even a beehive on site, which helps to keep the ecosystem healthy.

Councilwoman Carla Smith, who represents District 1 in Atlanta where the urban forest is located, says that the forest belongs to the city of Atlanta and the people, and cannot be sold or bought out by contractors.

“This is 7.1 acres of land that was owned by a family that farmed it,” Smith explains. “Ten years ago a contractor bought the property and they were going to build 100 condos to get more people in the neighborhood, but that fell through. That’s when I met Mario and we started working on what is here today. The conservation fund bought the land so that no one will be able to come in and buy the property.”

There are also opportunities to get involved and volunteer at the forest. Celeste Lomax is head of community engagement for the forest. She started out as a volunteer and now oversees the herbal garden.

“I have two titles. I work for Trees of Atlanta, where I bring the community to the forest and let them know what’s going on, trying to get more volunteers involved in the community, and teaching holistic health and wellness, that eating healthy is the new wealthy now,” says Lomax. “I also volunteer and take care of the herb garden. I took it upon myself to take care of the garden when no one else was. Each and every herb has a medicinal purpose.”

“There are a lot of stories of resilience and fresh food access in this community,” says Mario Cambardella, Director of Urban Agriculture for the city of Atlanta. “We can bring the resilience of the past forward in making a stronger, more vibrant community in the Browns Mill neighborhood for generations to come.”

For more information about the urban food forest at Browns Mill in Atlanta, visit www.aglanta.org.

Tianna is a freelance writer who loves writing and telling stories. Story topics include arts, entertainment, business, health, and lifestyle features.

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