Photo: Courtesy of City of Atlanta: Office of Sustainability

Photo: Courtesy of City of Atlanta: Office of Sustainability

Atlanta is leading efforts to support urban agriculture by appointing a staff member to support the local food system.

Mario Cambardella is the city's first Urban Agriculture Director, and we are fortunate to have someone with his experience and passion in the position.

Within his first week of work, the Atlanta native convened with local food organizations including Food Well Alliance and Atlanta Local Food Initiative (ALFI), shared his views about Atlanta's challenge to access land and technical resources, and offered up answers to 10 questions you've been curious to know about him.

Food Well Alliance had the opportunity to learn more about Mario; his excitement to meet "community champions," his receptive call to hear your thoughts, and can you guess who grows his favorite local produce?

ONE: Why is urban agriculture and local food important?

Community access to fresh, local foods builds a stronger, healthier and more resilient city. The tremendous population growth occurring in urban areas like Atlanta is a wake up call for how we look at the food system. Whether as a response to issues of food security, nutrition, education, environmental degradation, public health and community well-being, locally grown foods are a multi-pronged solution to urban challenges that should not be overlooked. Historically, city planners and policy makers have examined how major infrastructure components like energy, transportation, and water moved through and impact cities.  But food has been missing from the conversation. Now that 80 percent of the US population is living in cities, we need to take a stronger look at developing robust urban food systems.

Atlanta has numerous food deserts. These are areas where there is no convenient access to mainstream grocery outlets, leaving residents little choice beyond convenience stores and fast food restaurants. To tackle this, the Office of Sustainability aims to bring local, healthy food within a half-mile of 75 percent of all residents by 2020. I will be partnering with citizens in those communities and local advocacy groups like the Food Well Alliance and Georgia Organics to turn food deserts into food oases.

TWO: How would you like to support urban agriculture in Atlanta?

Three key areas where I can best support urban agriculture in Atlanta are improving local urban food production policies, assisting with brownfield redevelopment and helping community members seeking to establish and sustain community gardens, farmers markets, and food hubs. 

This involves being a full-time technical resource for community gardens. With the passage of the new community garden city ordinance, I will be streamlining the permitting process internally. One of my first initiatives will be to develop a guide for urban farmers to navigate city regulations.  Farmers need to focus on growing food - not deciphering rules. I aim to develop a series of educational outreach programs with community partners like Emory’s Turner Environmental Law Clinic, ALFI (Atlanta Local Food Initiative), and Georgia Organics to help guide those who wish to develop urban properties as food-producing landscapes.

Across the urban landscape of Atlanta there are a variety of uniquely positioned community-based, non-profits promoting urban agriculture who are ready to help. As urban agriculture director, I will be point of connection point for all of these. I will look to sync talent and assets with community resources and needs.

Through this commission and Power to Change challenge passed by the Office of Sustainability, Atlanta is positioning itself to become a true leader in the urban agriculture movement and show its commitment to Atlanta being a top-tier sustainable city.

THREE: How has your previous experience prepared you for this position?

I’ve been fortunate to have professional experience with many aspects of urban planning and land development. As an environmental planner, I’m trained to analyze complex interdependent systems, such as the ways that our infrastructure connects with our food and ecological systems. I believe my training will be critical as I tackle entrenched issues like food deserts. As a landscape architect, I am trained to solve design related issues through an analytical process. This skill set will be important in providing technical assistance for those wishing to start community gardens. As a designer, I will be able to partner with organizations like the Atlanta BeltLine and assist with their initiatives to create more food-producing landscapes. As an owner of a small and successful commercial business, Urban Agriculture Incorporated, I have an understanding of what it means to meet payroll every week. Most importantly, as a born and raised Atlantan, I have vested interest in my hometown. I am extremely proud to say I’m from Atlanta and will work to preserve what the City has accomplished and push for even greater heights.

FOUR: You'll be the first person ever for this position, what are you anticipating the most?

There are a lot of expectations, but I’m confident that I’ll be able to set a high bar for urban agriculture development in Atlanta through effective collaborations.   The Office of Sustainability has an incredible staff dedicated to making Atlanta the “greenest” city in the country. We intend to realize that goal.

FIVE: Ok, let's get personal, what's one thing you really want us to know about you?

I have a lovely wife, Lindsey, and supportive parents living in Sandy Springs. As a triple alumnus of University of Georgia, I’m an avid Bulldog fan. Go Dawgs!

SIX: Any social platforms you'd like to share with us?

None yet as the urban agriculture director, but I’m sure we will have something soon. Until then the Office of Sustainability has a number of social outlets to connect with. Including Power to Change, Twitter and Facebook.

SEVEN: The local food movement in Atlanta is very vocal, how would you like people to engage with you?

Any way they feel comfortable!  Email, phone, fax, letters, or postcards. Since my appointment I have made an effort to reach out to the many food-based organization in Atlanta and introduce myself, hear their mission, and ask how I can be of assistance to make their goals a reality.  

EIGHT: Atlanta is the land of legends, anybody you're excited about meeting?

The legends I’m looking forward to meeting are the community champions of the longstanding community gardens in Atlanta’s core. I am also excited to meet Atlantans all across the city. I want to hear their stories and struggles and know what is going on in their lives.

In this city we have some fabulous champions of local food in various communities.  I want to be a champion and supporter of their good work.

NINE: What's your favorite locally grown food?

I may be biased but it has to be my mother’s basil, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Grown in the front yard, unashamed, coupled with basil and other herbs, she has an endless imagination and creates the most wonderfully delicious dishes -- those three ingredients always seem to shine the brightest.

TEN: Three things you think of when you hear "Atlanta Local Food."

Delicious, Where?, How can I help?!