A Guardian feature explores America’s biggest “food forest” just a short drive from the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson. There is a relative calm as you wander through the gravel paths that weave through its fertile 7.1 acres (2.8 hectares).
When the Guardian visits the Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill there are around a dozen volunteers working on a warm morning. Among them are a mother and son clearing weeds from a secluded area soon to become a yoga and meditation space. “I wanted to help,” Rina Saborio said. “I thought it was a really cool opportunity for the community.”
Hundreds of volunteers have come before them in Atlanta, and thousands at similar schemes across the US.
Food forests are part of the broader food justice and urban agriculture movement and are distinct from community gardens in various ways. They are typically backed by grants rather than renting plots, usually rely on volunteers and incorporate a land management approach that has a focus on growing perennials. The schemes vary in how they operate in allocating food and policies on harvesting, but they are all aimed at boosting food access.
This scheme is located in Atlanta’s southside Lakewood community, less than five miles from downtown. Lakewood is a food desert, as defined by the USDA, and the nearest grocery store with healthy food options takes 20 minutes via public transportation. Most nearby “food marts” offer far more sweets, processed foods, and canned goods than fresh fruits, vegetables and produce.
Celeste Lomax, who manages community engagement at the Brown Mills forest and lives in the neighborhood, believes education is key to the forest’s success and beams like sunlight when sharing her vision for the fertile soil she tends. “We’re using this space for more than just growing food. We have composting, beehives, bat boxes, and this beautiful herb garden where we’re teaching people how to heal themselves with the foods we eat. We’ll be doing walkthrough retreats and outside yoga. This is a health and wellness place. It’s so much more than just free food.”