A child's hand reaches to pluck blueberries from a branch.
Jaime Henry-White/AP

The seven-acre site in southeast Atlanta will grow fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, and nuts to improve food security for local communities.

Atlantans who want to forage for food close to home are in luck: Last month, the city council voted to purchase a seven-acre nascent food forest in southeast Atlanta. It is expected to be the largest food forest in the country.

Food forests are layered, woodland versions of community gardens. They can include fruit and nut trees, shrubs, perennial vegetables, herbs, and vines.

A food forest “kind of flips our agricultural model on its head,” said Mike McCord of the nonprofit Trees Atlanta, who has been managing the Atlanta site over the past few years. “Unlike with commercial farming, we’re growing food on multiple layers. A forest has canopy trees, small trees, bushes, ground covers, vines, fungus, things going on in the root zone. The idea is to mimic our natural forests and grow productive things on all seven layers.”

The community-garden area at the Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill. (Courtesy of Trees Atlanta)

The Lakewood-Browns Mill community, which surrounds the forest, is considered an urban food desert. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s One Atlanta office seeks to end food insecurity in the city by increasing access to fresh food and developing more resilient food systems. The forest could help the city meet its goal of putting 85 percent of residents within a half-mile of fresh food by 2021.

Councilmember Carla Smith introduced the ordinance for the city to acquire the site (using a U.S. Forest Service grant it applied for back in 2016), and believes it will bring local residents together. “More than just getting food there, and maybe helping with the food-desert situation, it’s actually a place where people are making friends,” she said, “where kids from the neighborhood can just come hang out.” Plus, she added, “the food just tastes better when it’s from here.”

The city took over the site from the Conservation Fund, a national environmental nonprofit, which had purchased it in 2016. Twenty years before that, it was an operating farm owned by Ruby and Willie Morgan. The farm was home to horses, chickens, guinea fowl, vegetable row crops, and pecan orchards, according to McCord. The Morgans would leave extra produce on their fence posts for neighbors to take.

In 2006, the Morgans sold the land to a developer, who planned to build a townhouse complex on the plot. But in the late 2000s, the recession took hold, and plans for development fell through. Years went by, and with them came a young forest riddled with invasive, opportunistic plant species like Chinese privet and English ivy.

These invasives thrived until the Conservation Fund bought the land. Now Trees Atlanta and other community groups, government agencies, and hundreds of local students and volunteers are shaping the once-overgrown tract.

“Our work has been to restore the forest so that we can increase the biodiversity here,” said McCord. “We removed a lot of [invasives] and are replanting with native edible and medicinal plants.”

They have created a community garden with corn, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers. There is an orchard as well, which has been planted with apples, pears,  hazelnuts, goji berries, pomegranates, pawpaws, persimmons, and other trees.

The Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill isn’t the first of its kind in the United States. A push for productive green spaces has caused food forests to spread. There are now dozens around the country, including the 1.75-acre Beacon Food Forest in Seattle and the one-acre Bloomington Community Orchard in Bloomington, Indiana. But Atlanta’s food forest may be the only one bent on addressing the food-desert problem.

To help local residents become forest stewards, Trees Atlanta and the group Friends of the Food Forest host monthly learning sessions on urban forestry and agriculture techniques, after which participants use their new knowledge to tend the trees and plants.

“[Anyone] can pick the berries and the fruit, but the garden is separate,” said Douglas Hardeman, the community-garden manager. That doesn’t mean it’s off-limits: All you need to do is ask.

“A young lady came yesterday from the West End on a bus because she heard about the garden,” said Hardeman. “She wanted to get some fruit and vegetables. We gave her some vegetables, but the fruit trees aren’t ready yet.”

Most of the trees in the forest are still too young to bear fruit. But once they become productive, about five years from now, McCord expects “literal tons of fruit.”

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