In the beginning it was just about trees. Robby Astrove was planting dozens of them each year as part of a job with the nonprofit Trees Atlanta. His focus was large shade trees, such as oaks, maples, and hickories, grown to beautify communities, provide a reprieve from sun and concrete, and extend Atlanta’s already impressive canopy. Then one day, while Astrove was planting saplings down Lucile Avenue in the city’s historic West End—a lower-income, predominantly African-American community—a resident asked him, “Why don’t you plant fruit trees? We’re hungry.”
It was a simple idea with a dramatic result. Since that day about a decade ago, Astrove, who is equal parts educator, renegade, and visionary, has been responding to that query by planting fruit trees around the city—about 2,000 so far—in partnership with local organizations and community groups, sometimes on his own, and lately, through his own nonprofit, Fruit Forward Orchards. Pears now grow in schoolyards and churchyards, persimmons in community gardens, plums in grassy strips between the sidewalk and street. Meanwhile, Astrove’s own front- and backyard in East Atlanta look like a food forest.
“People love fruit trees,” Astrove says. “They are the best long-term, most sustainable form of agriculture in the urban environment with the lowest form of maintenance.”
What’s more, he notes, “they create a form of food sovereignty.” Hang out with Astrove or the other growers involved in Atlanta’s burgeoning food movement, and you may come to see the simple task of planting food within an urban environment is more than just a way to grow healthier, happier, and more sustainable communities. It’s also a small act of subversion, addressing the food inequities that too often divide Atlantans along racial lines.
While many of the city’s residents don’t think twice about heading to the supermarket to fill their fridges, about 25 percent of residents are food insecure. The vast majority of Atlanta’s food-insecure neighborhoods are in the southern half of the city, which is predominantly black. Some activists have gone so far as to call the inequity “food apartheid.” For low-income African-American residents, dinner often comes from convenience stores, food pantries, and fast-food chains that peddle meals high in fat and sugar and low in nutrition.
One step toward rectifying this inequity is to guarantee people in all communities a regular taste of free, fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s a mission that Astrove holds front of mind as he walks through his original orchard, planted in 2009 at Burgess-Peterson Academy in East Atlanta, a public elementary school that jumped into the national spotlight when Michelle Obama visited in 2011 as part of her “Let’s Move” campaign aimed at improving children’s health. (Georgia maintains one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the nation.)
The garden was designed for play and easy picking. “This tree here is a pawpaw,” Astrove says as he points up at a broad-leafed sapling, its branches laden with fruit resembling unripened mangoes. There are also pears, figs, and jujubes—crisp, grape- to strawberry-size fruits with a large seed in the middle, also known as red dates. “Kids eat from these trees!”
Astrove’s enthusiasm is magnetic. And it’s one reason his vision and reach keep growing as he’s gone from being a rogue tree planter to a community organizer, recognized as the 2015 Food Innovation Fellow at Atlanta’s Center for Civic Innovation. For the Burgess-Peterson orchard, he teamed up with the Atlanta Local Food Initiative, which works to create sustainable food systems in the city. Today the schoolyard boasts a thriving orchard and vegetable beds (tended by students, teachers, and neighborhood volunteers), an outdoor classroom, and a cooking class.
“Projects like these are important for a few reasons,” says Ashanté Reese, assistant professor of anthropology and food studies at Atlanta’s Spelman College. “First, there’s the importance of people connecting with the origins of foods. Then there’s the significance of the food crops Astrove is planting being public and not belonging to anyone.” Reese adds that there’s also value in children watching their neighborhoods get greened up. And last, it is empowering to realize that people can feed their families without always relying on our huge corporate food system, she says.
Astrove is proud to be part of an urban agriculture movement enacting a shared vision for a sustainable and alternative food system in Georgia’s capital. He points to various groups making innovative contributions to the city’s foodscape, such as Concrete Jungle, where participants forage for fruit on public lands and donate it to shelters and food banks. He also notes efforts by the city itself. Recently, Atlanta announced its first “food forest” as part of a multi-pronged initiative to create a “resilient, equitable, and accessible food system in Atlanta by 2025.” The city will cultivate seven acres of overgrown green space in its southeast corner, planting fruit and nut trees, large shrubs, low brush, and some ground crops, to help feed the surrounding communities. In some ways, the project returns the area to its roots—the land used to be a farm that offered surplus food to neighbors.
“Not everyone is going to want to farm, but people need to realize that everything they do is connected to the farm,” says Nicole Bluh, one of the growers for the cooperative Grow Where You Are in the West End. The group’s three-acre garden is an oasis of fruit, vegetables, and flowers surrounded by homes without running water or electricity. Squatters have taken up residence in these buildings, and many of them have come to rely on the garden for food. Astrove planted all of its fruit trees.
“Robby’s planting hope,” says Eugene Cooke, another farmer with Grow Where You Are. “He’s doing courageous and purposeful work because he’s seeing a long-term [future for] Atlanta and the food movement. You put these trees in and you’re rooting something for the next 50 years.”
Astrove is now working on a project whose seeds were planted years ago. With the help of funding from the Atlanta Housing Authority—the city’s chief affordable housing agency—he is planting a community “fruit route” in the Ashview Heights neighborhood, also on the city's west side. The route will be more than a 10-block span of fruit trees, vegetable plots, and herb planter boxes in a neighborhood short on greenery. By the end of 2019, it will connect schools, churches, universities, the Atlanta BeltLine (a project almost 20 years in the making that will eventually be a 33-mile multiuse trail, most of it along an old railway corridor), and an urban farm called Truly Living Well, which Astrove also helped plant. Soon, children will be able to walk along the route to school and pick fresh food, like a pawpaw or apple, that’s free and readily available.
“When we were first establishing the urban farm, we thought wouldn’t it be great to see how this property would influence the neighborhood, how it would bleed out into the community,” says Astrove. “Now, it is.”
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