Atlanta has cultivated many community gardens and public parks, but never a fruit and nut orchard, herb garden and walking trails all in one unique setting. This summer, a community in southeast Atlanta unveiled the first Urban Food Forest in Georgia where residents can play and pick fresh produce in the same park. The community space has made national headlines since it’s also the biggest food forest in America.
Since the Atlanta City Council passed an ordinance in May, the Browns Mill community near Lakewood Fairground and partners including The Conservation Fund and Trees Atlanta have officially celebrated the permaculture park that has grown since residents first planted the seed of the idea in 2016.
“There has been a tremendous participation from community members at every level and that’s really the heart of what this is all about,” said Shannon Lee, The Conservation Fund Atlanta’s urban conservation manager.
The Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill was once the property of Ruby and Willie Morgan ,who planted stately pecan trees at the entrance of their small family farm in the 1970s. While the farm ended production long ago, the 7.1-acres still yield wild blackberries and muscadines, while various organizations have planted more than 125 fruit trees – apples, nectarines, plums and pawpaws – which will eventually produce thousands of bushels a year.
“A single apple tree can produce up to 800 pounds of apples in one year,” Lee said. “When you start looking at the amount of fruit these trees can produce, you really start quickly getting into the tens of thousands of pounds.”
An abundance of fruit is a welcome challenge in a community that struggles to find fresh produce. The project started with a U.S. Forest Service grant to help secure the land and provide an oasis in the middle of a food desert.
Since the Food Forest has the potential to feed an entire neighborhood, volunteers are already preparing for ways to distribute the food to all corners of the community.
Volunteer Soisette Lumpkin is leading a group called Friends of the Food Forest to establish a connection between the local churches and food pantries. Generosity, especially in times of plenty, will honor the memory of the Morgan family.
“Whenever the Morgans had a surplus of food, the family would hang grocery bags full of produce on their neighbor’s fence posts,” Lee said. “In some ways we are honoring the agrarian past and their generosity by creating this Food Forest on their land.”
From the very beginning, the Food Forest was designed with and for the community. Residents worked with landscape architect team to develop the concept plan and then recruited four interns from the Browns Mill and Thomasville Heights neighborhoods to participate in an urban agriculture training program. For 13 weeks, they worked alongside Greening Youth Foundation to build 30 community garden beds, clear the orchard, construct a compost bin station and pave the way for the main trail that runs through the forest.
One intern from the program, Ashley Hicks, is now part time with the US Forest Service as the Food Forest Junior Ranger. She’s at the site nearly every day, alongside Food Forest Ranger Mike McCord of Trees Atlanta, community liaison Celeste Lomax, and volunteers Rosemary Griffin and Dough Hardeman. The Food Forest’s youngest volunteer, 12-year-old Jy’quan Almond, introduces himself to visitors as a Food Forest Ambassador and is knowledgeable enough to give his own tours of the trees he now calls his neighbors.
The Food Forest has intrigued hundreds of other students through workshops and field trips hosted at the site. The very first trees were planted by South Atlanta High School, Carver High School and Maynard H. Jackson High School students. The Food Forest has already thrown two STEM science festivals and a fall festival for the community. In March, the Audubon Society lead 200 second graders on a bird walk through the forest and the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance introduced students to the importance of water shed health.
The living classroom is open to all ages every second Saturday of the month during Grow and Learn. The first half of the morning includes education, from bird banding to mushroom inoculation, while the second half of the day is used for volunteering. It’s a chance to get connected to the earth and to the community, and maybe pluck a fresh fig for a snack.
For more about the Urban Food Forest, visit aglanta.org.