Member of Hayley Evan’s pilot urban garden team asking the Grows-a-Lot Urban Agriculture Coordinator if he thinks they can grow corn at the Mary George urban garden open house.

By Mario Cambardella
City of Atlanta Urban Agriculture Director

“Hi, I’m a city resident and I am interested in either managing or purchasing a city-owned lot across the street from my home. This space is poorly maintained and always has garbage in it like bath tubs, tires, couches, and other litter. Rather than be used as a dumping ground, I would like to turn this space into a community garden. Our neighborhood has plenty of families that do not own cars and we also lack a grocery store with fresh food. This would be a great way to get the community engaged and to provide nutrition.” Hayley Evans- Carver Hills, Atlanta.

The calls and emails from Atlanta residents like Hayley Evans and passionate feedback from Atlanta’s urban agriculture community during a series of stakeholder listening sessions identified access to land as one of Atlanta’s top barriers to producing and accessing healthy food.

In late 2017, the City of Atlanta announced the launch of the AgLanta Grows-A-Lot program. This program represents the first step towards creating a process by which city-owned land can be utilized for food production.

The AgLanta Grows-A-Lot pilot program will provide 5-year renewable licenses for farmers, non-profits and residents to adopt vacant, city-owned land to grow fresh, healthy food for themselves and their community. Nine out of these 10 pilot sites are located in a USDA low-income, low-access food desert area. The pilot reflects the city’s commitment to reach a goal set by former Mayor Kasim Reed: ensuring that 75 percent of Atlanta residents will be within a 10-minute walk to healthy food by 2020. This goal has been incorporated into Atlanta’s new Resilience Strategy.

The Office of Resilience (OoR) – led by Chief Resilience Officer Stephanie Stuckey with urban agriculture director Mario Cambardella, food systems planner Elizabeth Beak, and a host of community partners – spent a year planning this program. The team analyzed 78 vacant, city-owned properties and identified 10 properties suitable for food production.

An Aglanta Grows-A-lot Advisory Committee (AGAC), comprised of many of Atlanta’s most respected urban growers and food system leaders, worked with city staff to: 1) review best emerging practices of successful, municipal adopt-a-lot programs operating in cities throughout the U.S; and 2) create a clear, transparent, and equitable application process that reflects Atlanta’s unique challenges and opportunities. Neighborhood engagement officers went door to door, inviting residents to attend open houses at the pilot properties in their neighborhood. At these open houses neighbors had a chance to visit the site, share their ideas for what they hope to see grow, and learn about the urban garden and urban farm application process.

The good news is Atlanta’s food desert map is also changing to reflect the evolution of Atlanta’s local food movement. Between 2010 and 2016 Atlanta’s Food Desert area decreased by 17 percent (from covering 53 percent of the total area of the City of Atlanta to 36 percent.) However, there is more work to be done.

Partnerships will be key in ensuring that AgLanta pilot Grows-A-Lot urban garden and farm teams succeed. The Fulton County Soil and Water Conservation District granted Groundwork Atlanta (GWA) funds to hire Maurice Small as Urban Agriculture Coordinator to provide support to pilot garden and farm teams. Members of the AGAC, such as Jonathan Teshcher with Clark University, offered to help the farm team with their business plan. New Fields is assisting on GIS analysis for each site. The Atlanta Community Food Bank, UGA extension, GWA and OoR are creating an AgLanta Academy  to help urban garden teams with their site plans, permits, crop plans, garden leadership teams and budgets.

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Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.