Cities are often plagued by areas known as food deserts. These are neighborhoods — typically low-income — where residents don't have access to fresh, healthy foods like whole grains, fresh produce, low-fat dairy and other nutrition-packed selections. They might be able to go to fast-food restaurants or convenience stores for food, but they don't have grocery stores with aisles packed full of healthy choices.

Hoping to combat an Atlanta-area food desert, city leaders and nonprofit groups like the Conservation Fund and Trees Atlanta are developing a 7.1-acre food forest. Food forests are park-like areas full of edible plants that people in the community can harvest for free.

The land sits inside Atlanta's city limits in the Lakewood-Browns Mill community, where more than a third of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Urban Food Forest at Brown's Mill is the first of its kind in Georgia and the largest in the nation, reports The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Once a pecan farm that was sold for a townhouse development that never materialized, the food forest has been in the works since November 2016. City council recently passed an ordinance that permits the city to purchase the land from the Conservation Fund, which owns and has been preparing the land for the project.

Seeds have been planted

Dennis Krusac teaches a young neighbor about plants on Atlanta's Food Forest. Forest Service employee Dennis Krusac teaches a young neighbor about plants in the food forest. (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr)

The forest is already open with teams of volunteers working to maintain it and expand it, according to Fast Company. There are planter boxes where members of the community can grow produce, as well as trails that meander through the park alongside more than 100 fruit and nut trees growing apples, figs, plums and other edible fruits. Volunteers have cleared an area for a community garden.

"It's not some perfectly designed landscape architecture plan," Stacy Funderburke, conservation acquisition associate at the Conservation Fund, tells Fast Company. "If you were to see the before and after photos, you'd say it's incredible. But at the end of the day, I wouldn't say aesthetics are the main driver of this project."

Food Forest Final Concept plan The concept plan for the food forest includes gardens, trails and fruit groves. (Photo: Sustenance Design and STAND Landscape Architects)

Although there are many crops and trees already planted, the food forest is still in its very early stages, and some community members are disappointed when they arrive, ready to harvest produce.

"We had a person come yesterday from West End [an Atlanta neighborhood]," volunteer Douglas Hardeman told local TV station 11Alive. "Took a bus over here to get fruit and vegetables."

Because most of the fruit trees were planted in late 2018, he said they are about two to three years away from bearing fruit.

"During the winter and earlier this year, we planted over 100 fruit trees," Hardeman said.

"And we planted almost 100 berry bushes and vines. So all of this is new, all of this has been planted since December ... This is just the beginning, but within five years, theoretically, you would be able to come up on this site and pick all the apples, pears, plums, pawpaws."

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.

Urban food forest takes root in Atlanta
Offering fresh produce to people in food deserts, Atlanta creates first food forest in Georgia and the largest in the U.S.