Urban grower is an ambiguous name for the people that grow food up against Atlanta’s skyline and jam-packed highways. This article is Part 1 of a two part ‘Urban Grower’ series that explores farming in Atlanta; how do urban farms benefit communities, what are the challenges urban growers face and how will the city support small farmers in urban spaces. Get to know the people adding color and life into your community as they share experiences.
Overgrown patches of sweet potato plants, recently harvested okra stems and a flamingo pink chicken coop sit behind the tarp-covered fence at Brown Middle School. On top of a gravel-paved hill is a trailer painted with Patchwork’s iconic silhouette of a resilient woman carrying a load over her head.
The image previously greeted the students of Brown Middle School as they hiked up the hill to learn how their science and math classes corresponded to harvesting colorful produce and other fundamentals of urban farming.
In Atlanta, urban farms have provided outdoor classrooms for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education and food access to low income neighborhoods. These cultivated areas have also transitioned blighted land into urban oases, and increased community vitality through relationships with community partners.
Jamila Norman, akin to the feminine figure painted on the trailer, founded Patchwork City Farms with Cecilia Gatungo in 2011 and has been using food as a tool to transform the West End, her home neighborhood.
“Wanting to be in control of my food, that’s what really got me into it,” Jamila says.
Jamila, like many urban growers, produce food for profit, but also root their parcels of land into the urban-ecosystem to address the lack of healthy foods available.
Living in the West End, Jamila and her family are surrounded by fast food franchises and corner stores filled with processed foods that contribute to chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity. By growing vegetables, fruits and herbs, and raising livestock in urban neighborhoods, local farmers improve the economic, ecological and social impacts of living in the city.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency identified outdoor physical activity, increased property value and removing environmental hazards as a few benefits of urban agriculture.
“From an environmental standpoint, instead of it being a grassy field that someone is maintaining with a lawn mower, we’re growing food, building soil and bringing back wildlife,” Jamila says, “We’ve seen hummingbirds and bees all over the place, and so many people have been touched.”
The City of Atlanta has embraced the significance of urban farming. On December 3, Atlanta’s first Urban Agriculture Director, Mario Cambardella, will assume his role to support over 150 farms and gardens in the city limits.
In an earlier press announcement, Mayor Kasim Reed acknowledged urban agriculture as a movement that can help “eliminate food deserts” and improve “access to healthy food options.”
Urban farmer Bobby Wilson, is the CEO of Metro Atlanta Urban Farm, which plays a major role in building community vitality in College Park.
“Too often we think of urban ag[riculture] as food production, but I’d like to think urban ag is twofold: one, food production and two, community organizing,” Bobby says.
The multifaceted scope of urban agriculture occurs at Metro Atlanta Urban Farm, where in a single week, Bobby hosted 70 second graders, provided organic produce for community members, mentored youth from the juvenile justice court system, and met with Georgia Tech students about designing a rain catchment system.
With the City of Atlanta's Citywide Sustainability Initiative's goal to bring local, healthy food within a half-mile of 75 percent of all residents by 2020, the local food system is the force to help bring forth solutions.
Contrary to the city’s goal, farms and gardens in Atlanta are finding it difficult to protect their land from development, including urban grower Jamila, who recently relocated from Brown Middle School to the Urban Conservation Training Institute a few blocks away on Atwood Street in West End.
In part 2, we will take a deeper look at land access and other challenges urban farmers encounter while growing within the city limits.