Atlanta's Free Food Forest Hopes to Snuff Out Food Insecurity

Atlanta attempts to fight urban food deserts in a seven-acre former pecan farm.

While working as a medical assistant and seeing how many medications patients were prescribed, Celeste Lomax was taken aback and became interested in finding more natural, healthier ways for living and healing. She began growing medicinal herbs at home and taking classes.

In 2018, Lomax learned about the new 7.1-acre Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill, a community in which she lives that had been identified as a food desert on the south side of Atlanta. She could not wait to check it out and immediately started volunteering.

"If I didn't have a car, I would have to catch a bus or an Uber just to get to the store, because it's five or six miles away," Lomax explains. "When I saw the food forest, I thought, 'Wow! Look at all this good stuff here! They don't know what they can do with this and this and this.'"

In 2019, Lomax was hired by Trees Atlanta and is now a Food Forest Steward and Community Coordinator. Part of her work involves educating the community about the Browns Mill food forest and developing community programing.

A food forest, Lomax says, has "seven layers of delicious food." Starting at the top, the canopy is large fruit and nut trees, followed by lower trees like apples and plums. Next are edible bushes, such as blueberries, and edible vines including muscadines and raspberries that grow vertically.

The ground cover is where strawberries and mushrooms grow, followed by herbaceous plants like herbs and beets, and finally root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes.

Lomax adds that the Browns Mill food forest also has three beehives so that they can produce their own honey, and a compost bin "to keep everything organic. We don't use any pesticides or chemicals on anything," she says.

"If it does not have at least seven layers, then you are not, I'm sorry, a food forest," Lomax adds. "That's why I always like to tell people what it takes to be considered a food forest."

Though they're gaining ground in the United States, food forests are not new. According to the Association for Temperate Agroforestry, food forests were established in the American Southwest by the Spanish upon their arrival in the 1500s, "who brought with them many food-producing tree, shrub, vine, and herbaceous species from the Old World." Before the Spanish arrived, Native Americans managed trees and forests, though to the extent to which they may have been food forests is not documented.

The Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill, Atlanta's first Community Urban Food Forest, is not only a new model for City of Atlanta parks, but also a collaboration between Trees Atlanta, The Conservation Fund, and the City of Atlanta, among others, and is funded through a grant from the U.S. Forest Service's Community Forest Program. The food forest plays a major role in the city's efforts to "bring healthy food within a half mile of 85 percent of Atlanta residents by 2022." Lomax says, "I am excited to be a part of such a wonderful thing, and we have plenty of partners."

Urban Food Forest at Brown Mills
Courtesy of The Conservation Fund

A Food Oasis in One of America's Biggest Cities

Kelsi Eccles, Urban Conservation Communications Manager with The Conservation Fund in Atlanta, says that the organization purchased the now-food forest land for conservation as part of its Parks with Purpose program; the land was turned over to the city in 2019.

"Each park has a specific goal of addressing some kind of environmental justice issue that that community faces," explains Eccles. "For the Browns Mill community, that was having access to fresh produce, which is kind of how the food forest started."

She adds, "It's awesome because the land was originally used by a family who farmed the land, so it was almost like a full circle moment to bring that land back to this space. In the early 2000s it was set to turn into a development with something like three-story townhomes.

"Browns Mill isn't the only community in Atlanta that is considered a food desert, and a food forest can be beneficial to a lot of Black and brown communities across the city," Eccles continues. "Ultimately, on behalf of The Conservation Fund, we could apply this model and help jumpstart similar projects across the U.S. That is where this ideally could go, but we also have to take a step back to understand that food forests take a lot of time to set up and develop so that they're not harmful to community members, but beneficial to the people who live right in the area."

Eccles says that the model the Browns Mill food forest used brought community members into the discussion, taking note of what amenities locals wanted to see be developed.

The community has been supportive, too. Before the pandemic, Lomax says they had more than 1,000 volunteers, with people traveling in from California and even Africa to see the urban food forest. When asked if people are coming to the food forest to find out what they're doing so they can replicate it elsewhere, Lomax says, "Absolutely. People will come to us wanting to know how we did this, what's working for us, what's not working for us."

"Celeste has hands-down been the back bone of making sure that the harvesting guidelines are correct, and that the herb and community gardens have been taken care of," Eccles says. "There are two other volunteers, Doug Hardeman and Rosemary Griffin, who are the community garden managers; they have also been a part of the backbone of the food forest. The food forest doesn't get sprayed with pesticides, so they are going in and hand picking weeds and making sure that the wrong kind of bugs are out of the garden."

Eccles says that volunteers' attention to detail really highlights how passionate they are about the project. "I will forever sing their praises for the time and dedication and love that they have put into that food forest. It has been critical to the success," says Eccles.

Doug and Kids community Garden
Courtesy of The Conservation Fund

In addition to the Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill, Lomax is partnering with West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA), a Black- and community-run non-profit organization that operates the Outdoor Activity Center (OAC), a 26-acre urban forest preserve and nature center. "They will be bigger than us, which is why we're collaborating to get this thing done," Lomax says.

She adds that she and WAWA are piloting Growth to Grow, a children's education program around sustainability and equity. "We have seven kids so far, and have taught them how to propagate rosemary and they have planted strawberries," Lomas says. "It's a win-win: it gets kids out of the house. We're teaching the children and they're so excited that they go home and tell mom and mom comes out, too.

"I think this place is so much bigger than what we thought it was going to be because we're so much bigger than just free food for the community," she continues. "We're actually going to be healing the whole person holistically with SEL — social emotional learning — deficit that's going on [due to the pandemic]. We're all needing a break, and this gives everyone a break to come out. We'll be doing forest bathing, yoga outside, activities, sun bathing, all kinds of things that will heal us whole."

"It takes a village to make all of this happen," Lomas shares.

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