When a dormant pecan farm in the neighborhoods of south Atlanta closed, the land was soon rezoned and earmarked to become townhouses.

But when the townhouses never came to fruition and with the lot remaining in foreclosure, Atlanta's Conservation Fund bought it in 2016 to develop an unexpected project: the nation's largest free food forest.

Thanks to a US Forest Service grant and a partnership between the city of Atlanta, the Conservation Fund, and Trees Atlanta, you'll find 7.1 acres of land ripe with 2,500 pesticide-free edible and medicinal plants only 10 minutes from Atlanta's airport, the world's busiest airport before the pandemic struck.

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The forest is in the Browns Mill neighborhood of southeast Atlanta, where the closest grocery store is a 30-minute bus ride away.

"Access to green space and healthy foods is very important. And that's a part of our mission," says Michael McCord, a certified arborist and expert edible landscaper who helps manage the forest.

The forest is part of the city of Atlanta's larger mission to bring healthy food within half a mile of 85% of Atlanta's 500,000 residents by 2022, though as recently as 2014, it was illegal to grow food on residential lots in the city.

Resources like the food forest are a rarity and necessity in Atlanta as 1 in 6 Georgians face food insecurity, 1 in 3 Browns Mill residents live below the poverty line, and 1 in 4 Atlantans live in food deserts so severe, some find it more apt to call the problem "supermarket redlining."

"We host lots of students for field trips, and for a lot of them, it's their first time at a garden or farm or forest," said McCord. "So here they get to experience everything urban agriculture and urban forestry all in one day. It's really special."

The forest is now owned by the parks department and more than 1,000 volunteers and neighbors are helping to plant, water and maintain the forest. In a day alone, there can be more than 50 volunteers working on the forest.

That work of maintaining the forest is done by volunteers is a testament to the forest's ability to build community, said Carla Smith, an Atlanta city councilwoman who helped start the project.

"It's really a park for everyone, said Smith. "Every time I go there's a community there who respects and appreciates the fresh healthy foods. There's a mentality there that people know to only take what they need."

Initiatives to make urban cities more edible are catching on. There are at least 70 free food forests in the country, and in free food forests in Seattle, Portland and Asheville, thousands of pounds of food are harvested each year. For McCord, that's a sign that urban agriculture is moving in the right direction.

"Everything out of a park space is a teachable moment, whether it be trees, trails, bees or vegetables. That's what's most important to me — that we're raising awareness about sustainability and agriculture."

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