Atlanta Created the Largest Edible Food Forest in the US

The city took a new approach to ensure that city residents have access to fresh food.


Atlanta Created the Largest Edible Food Forest in the US | The city took a new approach to ensure that city residents have access to fresh food.

A seven-acre (2.8 hectares) site inside Atlanta, Georgia's city limits will become the home of the largest edible forest in the US. It's a public park that houses planter boxes for city residents to plant vegetables and a network of trails through a forest landscape of edible fruit and nut trees.

But it wasn't always this way. For years the former pecan farm sat vacantly. The land was earmarked for townhouses, but eventually, the plan and the property was abandoned.

Now, thanks to a remarkable partnership between the city of Atlanta, the Conservation Fund, a host of nonprofits and a lot of volunteers that banded together, the food forest was born. The Fund purchased the land in 2016 when the property was abandoned, and a newly passed city ordinance approved the city paying $157,384 for the property.

This ordinance is part of something much larger - a plan to ensure that 85 percent of Atlantans live within a mile of fresh food by 2021. The acreage is right near the Lakewood-Browns Mill community, which is considered a food desert because of the lack of grocery stores. A third of the area's population lives below the poverty line.

“It’s not some perfectly designed landscape architecture plan,” Stacy Funderburke, Conservation Acquisition Associate at the Conservation Fund told Fast Company. “If you were to see the before and after photos, you’d say it’s incredible. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t say aesthetics are the main driver of this project.”

The goal is to grow fresh produce in a space that can be used and enjoyed by the local community. “With these types of projects, I don’t think that we should pretend they’ll feed everyone in a food desert,” said Funderburke. “But given the size, seven acres, it’s going to produce an impressive amount of food.”

Food production will continue to increase with time. The trees, bushes, and plants are chosen as an investment in the future. Fruit trees can take years to produce, but in future years, families can walk the trails and pick their own snacks.

The project, after the land has officially been transferred to the city, will fall under the jurisdiction of the parks and recreation department. According to the ordinance, Trees Atlanta will maintain the food forest. But the hidden cost is being paid with sweat by the 1,000 volunteers who built and planted the forest. This is an ongoing task to water and care for the plants.

The plan is to replicate this edible food forest in other vacant areas in the city so that more people can be fed. “It’s great to fast-forward five years from now," said Funderburke. "What if there were five of these food forests sprinkled around Atlanta? There could be. There’s enough land. It’s more about showing it’s possible.”

While this is Atlanta's first urban food forest, the model has been successful in other major US cities. Tree fruits, berries, and vegetables are free to be picked at Seattle, Washington's Beacon Forest. There are four food forests and community gardens in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the city of brotherly love. And the site of a former trash heap in Asheville, North Carolina was transformed into the George Washington Carver Edible Park that has been feeding low-income residents since 1997.

Food forests are part of the permaculture movement and are becoming popular worldwide. This form of sustainable agriculture could be a big part of meeting the demand for 70 percent more food by 2050. Hopefully, there could soon be an edible food forest near where you live, too.

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