Author's note: An article is much more work than an essay, requiring facts and research rather than mere convictions and opinions . . . which is why I rarely write an article. The following article was commissioned by Atlanta Progressive News and published on July 25, 2011. The published version contained editorial changes I did not have a chance to review, which included several grammatical errors and a mis-attributed quote. I am taking the liberty of posting the original version here. Scroll to the bottom for a link to the published version. Editorial quibbles aside, APN is a worthy vehicle for alternative news in Atlanta and well worth both a subscription (which is free) and a donation.

Community Gardens Take Root in Metro Atlanta

by Stephen Wing

Facing an uncertain future, people across the country seem to instinctively grasp two things. They want a greater sense of community in their lives. And they want to grow their own food. These two impulses are coming together in the phenomenal spread of community gardening. In towns, cities and suburbs alike, community gardens of all types and sizes are multiplying into a genuine grassroots movement.

Atlanta is no exception. “There has been a lot of growth in community gardens, especially in the suburbs and outside 285 recently,” says Fred Conrad, Community Garden liaison for the Atlanta Food Bank. The metro area is now dotted with over 350 community gardens, including gardens run by schools and churches, nonprofits and informal groups of neighbors.

“Food, eating around a table, sharing food, has always been historically this great connective point for people, and community gardens are a really focused central point of that,” says Michael Wall, Communications Director at the statewide organization Georgia Organics. “You can think of it as like a community center, in a way, except it’s based around food instead of ping pong or swimming. It’s a community center where people come and share food, share growing practices, share advice on how to get rid of certain bugs. It’s a great way to meet your neighbors.”

In 2007, the Atlanta City Council passed a measure allowing community gardens in city parks. Park Pride runs the program, and has offered some start-up microgrants, according to Conrad, but each community garden is an independent project organized by neighbors. “There are some start-up costs, but after that they’re revenue-neutral, because the membership pays plot fees, or garden coop membership fees, that cover the regular expenses of water and mulch and cookies and punch for their meetings, stuff like that.”

Decatur has been even more proactive, according to Conrad. “The City of Decatur has created a document that creates a vehicle for anybody, any community garden organization, to access any city-owned property in Decatur.”

Conrad’s work at the Food Bank supports community gardening in several ways. “We have about three shifts a week where we can bring volunteers with tools,” he says. The volunteers are available to assist gardens whose members are predominantly seniors or “differently abled,” or when a particularly ambitious project is getting off the ground – so to speak.

The Food Bank also helps with equipment needs and even organizational expertise. “It doesn’t make sense for all of the gardens to own rototillers, when they only would use them once or twice a year, so the Food Bank can come in and plough for them,” Conrad says. “The Mulberry Fields community garden right now has a specific committee set up to deal with rainwater catchment, irrigation issues, water issues, so I’m serving on that ad hoc committee because that’s where we’re needed.”

The Atlanta Urban Gardening Program, a project of the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, operates in Fulton and Dekalb Counties. “Our major objective is to provide technical assistance in the area of organizing community gardens,” says program coordinator Bobby Wilson, a veteran of 25 years of work with community gardens in metro Atlanta. “I always tell folks that there are two parts about community garden that we do. One is the community organizing piece, and two is the food production piece.”

Wilson also serves as president of the American Community Gardening Association, with members throughout the U.S. and Canada and other countries as well. Atlanta hosted the 33-year-old organization’s annual conference last year, with approximately 500 attendees representing 39 states and 8 countries.

The flagship of Wilson’s “inner city agriculture” program is a monthly Monday-night gathering of his network of gardeners. “We have a gardening lesson, a leadership lesson, an opportunity and chance to network and fellowship on a regular basis, and an outreach program to the homeless community,” he says. Each gardening group comes to the meeting with 20 or 30 bag lunches they have prepared, which are delivered to the Task Force for the Homeless shelter at Peachtree and Pine.

The program has helped to establish gardens at daycare centers, public housing complexes, and facilities for the physically challenged. One of the biggest contributors to community gardening’s growth spurt, Wilson observes, is the churches. “We have more and more churches embarking upon growing vegetables on church grounds and other properties that they have, and if they’re not growing community gardens or organizing community gardens, they’re supporting community gardens throughout primarily depressed areas.”

The motives for this are multifold, he believes. Churches see their gardens as an opportunity for fellowship, relaxation and therapy for their congregations, as well as an outreach ministry, a service to their communities. Gardening also augments food supplies for struggling families in the “food deserts” of the inner city, and may help to reverse the obesity epidemic that results from poor diets and the lack of healthier alternatives.

These food desert areas have become a major concern to country government, according to Wilson. “The county manager has on his priority list to create a mobile farmers’ market where we buy locally grown products that will go into these food deserts and provide individuals and groups with fresh vegetables on a consistent and regular basis.”

One of the most impressive community gardens in town occupies the four-acre site of a former housing project in the Old Fourth Ward. Appropriately enough, it’s only two blocks from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. Occupying a site leased from a nearby Baptist church, the Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture provides high-quality produce to members of its CSA (Community-Sponsored Agriculture network), as well as to restaurants and grocery stores.

“In the traditional sense, we’re not a community garden, we’re a garden in the community,” says founder Rashad Nuri. “In a community garden, individuals would have these plots. But what we have are groups of people who are growing this food and offering it to the community . . . We literally have chefs dancing when they see this food.” Many volunteers have contributed to this ongoing effort, from church groups to AmeriCorps.

Wheat Street is the fourth site developed for gardening since Truly Living Well started out six years ago with a site in Riverdale. Nuri and garden manager Eugene Cooke began by collecting compost in buckets wherever they could find it and building compost piles. At Wheat Street today, large compost piles steam with the decay of 500 pounds of food waste collected daily from the Atlanta Farmer’s Market. “I don’t even try to grow food,” says Nuri. “I build soil. God grows the food. . . . It’s very simple, just compost, compost, compost, and food will grow.”

Vast concrete floors, the only remnant of what was once housing for hundreds of people, are now covered with 54 two-foot-high wooden frames built by volunteers. Each raised bed is equipped with an efficient drip irrigation system connected to city water. Every kind of vegetable you can name grows from rich dark topsoil made from compost right on site. Between the frames, a variety of fruit trees and berry bushes complement the vegetables. A greenhouse on the premises helps get the young plants started.

But more grows here than produce: it's a full-scale school for urban gardeners, with classes in every phase of food-growing, even a summer camp for kids. “They can learn how to do the beds and the irrigation,” says Cooke. “They can learn how to grow in the ground, they can learn how to set fruit orchards up, they can learn sprouting techniques in the greenhouse. They can buy compost, they can buy mulch, they can buy plants, they can buy earthworms, they can buy seeds.”

“And through that process,” Nuri adds, “all of that culminates in community-building, community development. Economic development. Providing jobs. Transforming people, transforming the society, transforming the land, the soil.” Many of the campus’s graduates have started their own agricultural enterprises. Nuri cites the example of ten people from Vine City who did a twelve-week full-immersion program, then started their own farm, set up their own market, and are now teaching other people in Vine City to grow food.

The benefits of all this for the City of Atlanta seem obvious. Is the city supporting Truly Living Well in return? Nuri greets the question with a grin. “The City of Atlanta, they don’t know, they haven’t had to deal with the situation before. We’re the guinea pigs for working all that stuff out. Other cities will reduce the taxes for a nonprofit as well as someone doing agriculture. If we were designated as a park then we’d have no taxes – [but] that takes political machinations to get done.”

The 2007 City Council initiative is encouraging, as is the example of Decatur. Bobby Wilson gratefully acknowledges the enthusiasm of Atlanta Councilwoman Joyce Shepherd, Fulton County Manager Zach Williams, and Dekalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson, among others. “But we don’t have that blanket support that we really need,” he says. “With a little bit of support we believe that we could take some of these vacant lots and we could turn them into productive pieces of land. We’ve had community gardens that have got certified to participate in farmers markets, and we’ve seen them make money off their community gardens by selling their fresh produce at these markets.”

But as Wilson can testify, the positive impact of a garden extends well beyond the gardeners themselves. “We’ve seen drug dealers leave off the corner because what used to be a blighted area is now a community garden. We’ve seen prostitution move out of a community because what used to be the site where they do prostitution is now a thriving place, a gathering place . . . So community gardening can have a tremendous impact upon a community as well as an individual’s life.”

And the benefits extend to society at large. As food scares, fuel costs, and alarm about GMOs and pesticides continue to rise, Wilson sees an increasing role in food production for small niche farmers in urban areas. “We’ve got local restaurants within our community that can come out and pick fresh vegetables that they’re going to serve that evening . . . So now the food that used to travel 1500 miles to get to the table now only has to travel within that community.”

(Click here for the version of this article published by Atlanta Progressive News)

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