July 12, 2021 |Kelsi Eccles | Food and Farms

Atlanta’s Urban Food Forest Supports Community from the Ground Up

What exactly is a food forest?

Celeste Lomax (CL): A food forest is a seven-layer forest that grows medicinal herbs, vegetables, or fruit. At the top you have the canopy layer, which would be the nut trees. Then you would have your apple trees. Then you would have your shrubs and your berries. And after that you have your ground cover, like crawling thyme, and then below that your root vegetables, which would be potatoes and carrots. And then the muscadines and the tomatoes and things that grow up. It’s just seven different layers of agriculture and goodness.

Layers of a Food ForestGraphic courtesy of the Fair Amount Food Forest


Why is the Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill important for the community?

CL: So we are kind of in a food desert without access to fresh fruits and organic food—well, not anymore—we were before this was put here. I’m blessed to have transportation, but there’s a lot of people in this community who either have to catch an Uber or a bus to go to the grocery store, and even when you get there the food is still not fresh or healthy because of the pesticides and the chemicals.

You have everything you need right here in this food forest. The nuts and the trees and the berries…we have the starch, we have the beans, we have everything right here. We don’t even have to go to the store right now. And that’s amazing to be self-sufficient.

Just knowing that this place is here and getting people to try to eat healthier is also part of the plan. You can’t just put food here and not teach people how to cook it or let them taste how good different types of foods are.

When did you get involved with the food forest and why are you passionate about this project? What makes this so special to you?

CL: I live right around the corner. I came by the space and plants were in the ground and they were dying. They had medicinal herbs, like patchouli and coriander, and no one was taking care of them. I just started watering and I’ve been stuck like chuck ever since. It has had its challenges, but the greatness of seeing what’s in this space right now, with how it’s being utilized, definitely outweighs any challenge that I had to go through.

This is so much more than just food, even though that’s what everyone focuses on. Healing ourselves holistically, inside and out, is also just as important as growing this food. What’s the sense of growing the food if you don’t know that the food is also your medicine and this is how we heal our bodies? I want to be able to educate and teach people how to grow their own and how to become self-sufficient.

Food Forest Atlanta
Celeste and visitors at the food forest. Photo: Kelsi Eccles

The concept of a food forest is a radically compassionate idea. What kind of response have you seen to the food forest?

CL: The response is changing because at first they were like, well, we’re not getting access to the food. We are now growing so many more pounds of food that we’re able to feed a lot more. I mean, there’s a little bit of space here, but the food is an abundance. I do a food drive on Fridays where we deliver 50 boxes to those that are touching the Browns Mill urban food forest. That way we know the people in the immediate community are actually benefiting from the fruits and vegetables and everything that’s grown here for them.

How has the community been involved over the years?

CL: There is no ‘I’ in team and it takes a village to make this happen. Every Wednesday we have volunteers that come out to help us. We give them projects, we supply the tools, the gloves. We lead and guide them.

And we have a children’s program [called Grow to Glow] that we’re very focused on right now, getting the children involved in growing, getting them their own tools and their own instructions and books on how to garden.  We had 18 kids out here last week and I’m expecting another bus load of kids soon. We teach them about pollination and bees and bats and how all the diversity of all of these different ecosystems are here, free of charge, right here in this space.

We also keep the community involved by using the food forest as an educational space and a holistic health and wellness healing place. We have our afternoon yoga programs under the pecan tree. We have sound healing that goes with the yoga program, so that’s working great. We do aromatherapy and we run our hands through the herbs and we’ll take a deep breath in and walk through the forest and do some forest bathing.

Celeste Lomax blog
Celeste Lomax in the herb garden with an anise hyssop—a great plant for pollinators that can also be used to treat respiratory issues. Photo: Kelsi Eccles

What do you think conservation organizations can learn from this work? How can we improve our partnerships with communities?

CL: Maybe more diversity equity programs to financially fund programs that will benefit the area. A lot of people don’t have transportation. A lot of people don’t have the money for the programs or to get the materials to teach the programs. We’re either asking for grants or donations. To think that it’s just solely going to be run on volunteers is also unrealistic.

When people hear the word conservation, they usually think about big national parks like the Grand Canyon and protecting large areas of land. So why do you think conservation in urban city areas is so important?

CL: I don’t even think you all realized the magnitude of how this space was going to change lives holistically for generations and generations to come when The Conservation Fund purchased this property in 2016. I don’t know if we really understood, because I think this thing is bigger than what we ever would have imagined. I do thank you all for coming into the urban spaces and turning these spaces into green spaces where we can sustainably grow and learn and educate.

Written by

Kelsi Eccles

At the time of publication, Kelsi Eccles was Urban Conservation Coordinator for The Conservation Fund.