The Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill is putting the city of Atlanta one step closer to its mission of 85 percent of residents living within a half mile of fresh food by 2022 and making national news as the largest food forest in the U.S. at 7.1 acres.
The community was as an integral piece to the project’s development—from serving as sources in a 12-month eff ort of the city to engage door-to-door or hosting fieldtrips to assist in devising an accurate Community Vision Plan that reflected the neighborhood’s needs. Georgia’s Cities
learned more about this project from Mario Cambardella, Atlanta’s urban agriculture director.
GC: Why was the Lakewood-Browns Mill community selected as the forest location?
MC: The United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service's Community Forest Program (CFP) works with local governments to protect forestlands. In 2016, the city won a grant for CFP funding to establish a food forest. The Browns Mill location fulfilled the CFP grant criteria, as it was greater than five acres, suitable to sustain natural vegetation and at least 75 percent forested. Not only was this location eligible for the grant, but it was also a perfect fit for the fresh-food-access mission of Atlanta. In the community surrounding the Urban Food Forest at Brown’s Mill, more than a third of the population lives below the poverty line and 26 percent of the population doesn’t have access to a vehicle. There are few sidewalks and cars race by at high speeds.
GC: How has your oﬃce attracted and organized so many partnerships?
MC: The Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill was an innovative project, which meant there were no experts on the best practices for its creation and development. Our office needed to utilize collective knowledge to succeed, and by working collaboratively, we shared expertise. Additionally, each partner helped the overall group by providing further exposure. Instead of competing for resources, collaboration allowed both our office and our partners to reach individual goals while working on the greater project of developing the food forest at Browns Mill.
GC: What impact has the conservation of the Lakewood-Browns Mill community and its natural resources had on the project?
MC: A food forest mimics the ecosystem of a true forest using permaculture principles. Plants are grown in layers to work in concert with one another. The natural by products of one plant may help the others grow, and less inputs are required as nutrient pathways in the soil are more self-sustaining than in a typical garden or farm. In this way, a food forest is highly sustainable and efficient and poses an attractive option when working to conserve natural resources. The pecan and mulberry trees that were present on the property when it was originally chosen to be the site of the food forest were able to be preserved and utilized to compose the canopy of the multilayered food forest system.
When The Conservation Fund secured the land that would become the urban food forest, it was vacant property that did little to culturally connect or support the community of Lakewood-Browns Mill. The farm that had once utilized the land was known for leaving parcels of food on their fence post for neighbors to share. That practice left its mark on the community and gave the land a history rooted in agriculture and generosity. The Browns Mill Urban Food Forest preserves that cultural legacy to teach ecological literacy.
GC: In addition to reaching Atlanta’s goal of putting 85 percent of residents within a half mile of fresh food by 2022, how else is the forest improving and educating the community?
MC: In addition to growing produce, the park contains community garden plots, a mushroom walk, beehives, a community compost station and medicinal plants. It hosts events and educational workshops to help community members understand the process of growing food, nutrition and steps towards healthy living. Witnessing and learning about the process of planting and growing fosters greater understanding and consciousness of the local food system and everyday consumption. With these new experiences many neighbors of the food forest are now planting fruit trees in their private yards.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of Georgia Cities Magazine. Click here to read the issue.