The southeast Atlanta neighborhood of Browns Mill is home to the nation’s largest free food forest – a 7.1-acre oasis of 2,500 pesticide-free plants and mushrooms which provide fruits, vegetables, and nuts for those in need.
The land – previously a pecan farm – was purchased by the Conservation Fund in 2016 to be developed into a food forest. Ownership of the land was transferred to Atlanta last year.
Browns Mill is an area where the nearest grocery store is a 30-minute bus ride away and where one in three residents live below the poverty line. The neighborhood is located just 10 minutes away from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Today, there are over 70 free food forests across the U.S. They have become more prominent as cities have moved recently to incorporate edible areas into the city-scape. “Food forests, also known as forest gardens, are low-maintenance, sustainable arrangements of edible plants that are designed to mimic natural ecosystems,” Modern Farmer reports “Comprised mostly of perennial plants, there’s no need for tilling, weeding, fertilizing, or irrigation.”
Atlanta’s department of parks and recreation owns the land which is in-part managed by more than 1,000 volunteers and as many as 50 per day. “The project is funded by a grant from the U.S Forest Service’s Community Forest Program and is part of the City of Atlanta’s efforts to bring healthy food within a half-mile of 85 percent of Atlanta residents by 2022,” according to the initiative’s site.
More than one in every four Atlantans live in neighborhoods defined as food deserts, or areas with limited geographic access to fresh meats and produce, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Access Research Atlas.
Certified arborist and expert edible landscaper Michael McCord helps manage the forest. McCord told CNN, “Access to green space and healthy foods is very important. And that’s a part of our mission.” He added that the farm hosts “lots of students for field trips, and for a lot of them, it’s their first time at a garden or farm or forest.”
“So here they get to experience everything urban agriculture and urban forestry all in one day,” McCord said. “It’s really special.”
The Browns Mill food forest’s impact goes beyond battling food insecurity. In addition to providing nourishment, it’s a site for community and relationship-building, and education.
“Everything out of a park space is a teachable moment, whether it be trees, trails, bees, or vegetables,” said McCord. “That’s what’s most important to me — that we’re raising awareness about sustainability and agriculture.”
CNN reports that the forest managers ask that community members are given priority when food is harvested. The food not grown in plots is harvested by the forest’s volunteers and then distributed.
The project maintains operations through grant funding provided by both the federal government and independent nonprofit organizations. This includes the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service Community Forest Program, and Trees Atlanta, The Conservation Fund, and Open Space Conservation, according to Modern Farmer.