Photo: istock

At the 2018 AgLanta Conference in late March, growers, tech professionals, business owners, venture capitalists and government officials convened at the Georgia Freight Depot in Atlanta with one overarching topic in mind: urban agriculture.

The second annual event featured panels covering topics from smart resource management to the value of urban agriculture to what consumers want from food in a digital age. Attendees came to Atlanta with varying levels of experience — some were still in college, still looking for their first break; others were seasoned professionals who owned or worked for thriving businesses — but everyone was there to learn.

But the AgLanta Conference also was, and will be in years to come, part of Atlanta’s investment in urban agriculture. Since 2015, Georgia’s largest city — population 472,522, according to the most recent U.S. census — and state capital has been working to improve and stay attuned to the needs of its citizens. An essential part of those efforts is urban agriculture and making fresh, healthy food more readily available to the people of Atlanta. In addition, they're working toward improved housing, civic unity and an overall stronger city.

“These are chronic stresses,” Otis Rolley, the managing director for 100 Resilient Cities, says. “So we need to build them up on both an individual level and a structural level of our cities to think about what you have to do, and how you can invest, to make cities more resilient and deal with the shocks and stresses.”

An exercise in resilience

100 Resilient Cities, an extension of the Rockefeller Foundation, is an organization that aims to do exactly what its name implies: make cities stronger. It helps cities all over the world adapt and react to the “physical, social and economic challenges of the 21st century,” according to its website. Cities such as Accra, Ghana; Athens, Greece; and Singapore are among the non-North American cities involved with the organization. In the United States, Atlanta is one of 22 cities — including New York City, San Francisco and Dallas — working with 100 Resilient Cities. San Juan, Puerto Rico, is also a resilient city, as are Calgary, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver in Canada.

In each city, 100 Resilient Cities implements a plan custom-fit for its needs, although there are some core principles to each resiliency plan. To start, a Chief Resiliency Offer is appointed — in Atlanta, Stephanie Stuckey originally held the role and Cicely Garrett is the current Interim Chief Resilience Officer — and 100 Resilient Cities covers the officer’s salary for the first two years. Additionally, an overall resiliency plan is developed between city leaders and 100 Resilient Cities. Member cities also consult with other cities about what worked in different locales, and seek partners in private, public and NGO sectors to help each city implement its plan. More than 7,000 Atlanta residents were engaged during the city’s resiliency planning phase.

“We try to help people and help them understand how the world operates,” Rolley says.

In Atlanta, one of the main concerns the resiliency plan aimed to address was access to fresh, local food. According to Stan Vangilder, program manager at the Southern Company, an energy company in Georgia, 25 percent of people living in the Atlanta metropolitan area live more than half a mile to the grocery store and do not have access to a car; this is more commonly known as a food desert. Also, Vangilder says one in four Atlanta families with children are considered food-insecure, which the USDA defines as a situation when “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.”

Otis Rolley (left) and Mario Cambardella (right)
Photo courtesy of Agritecture

In short: Many Atlanta residents are simply not in a position to be able to buy and eat the kind of food they need to sustain a healthy diet.

“Any movement towards more plants can improve your health,” Vangilder says. “Diets for [people in food-insecure communities] tend to be high in processed, high-calorie and low-nutrient foods. That is not good stuff. Food security and health are inextricably linked.”

A central part of Atlanta’s resiliency plan is making fresh food available within one half-mile of 75 percent of its residents by 2020 and increasing that to 100 percent of citizens by 2025. At AgLanta, Rolley called this a “non-negotiable” benchmark for the city. Vangilder also notes that work needs to be done to prove to people that locally grown, healthy food doesn’t have to be expensive and only for higher-paid citizens.

He also said that to help black Atlanta residents — who make up 54 percent of the city’s population, according to the most recent census — improving business opportunities and access to healthier food are key parts of the plan. According to the 2010 census, Atlanta is the fourth-largest black-majority city in the U.S., and Rolley says data shows that they are at a disadvantage.

“There is a huge disparity between African-American wealth and white wealth,” he says. “If a city is really serious about being a global city, then we have to deal with, in a substantial way, around creating more economic activity particularly for African-American Atlantans.”

Events like the AgLanta conference aim to engage the community with agriculture.
Photo courtesy of Agritecture

Making progress

In an effort to meet its goals, Atlanta hired Mario Cambardella as the city’s urban agriculture director. He is the first person in the United States to hold that role in a major city.

Cambardella is a graduate of the University of Georgia, where he earned his master’s degree in environmental planning and design. He calls his job of developing Atlanta’s urban spaces a “dream job.” Agriculture is part of his family history as well. His grandparents emigrated from a small farming community in Naples, Italy to Brooklyn, New York, in the 1930s, and helped build community gardens there.

Cambardella’s day-to-day tasks can range from helping an Atlanta resident place a water meter at a community garden to issuing a permit.

“My job is to empower constituents,” he says.

Overall, Atlanta’s agricultural efforts are centered on helping residents better their lives. AgLanta.org serves as the digital component of the efforts. There, residents can find digital resources about local food and different events the city is holding to engage the community and help them better understand food. One such event is the AgLanta Eats food festival, which took place in July and raised money for AgLanta's Grows-A-Lot program.

The Grows-A-Lot program is at the core of what Cambardella and the rest of the city strive to improve. Organized by Groundwork Atlanta, a local branch of the Groundwork USA network that works with the environment, equity and civic engagement and the office of resilience, Grows-A-Lot gets urban farming space to citizens who can utilize it. In the program, vacant property owned by the city and Georgia Power is made available to urban farmers and community gardeners who want to put the property to good use. Lots are available to parties interested and can be rented with five-year leases, with an option to renew for three more years after that.

“We want to enable all Atlantans to prosper,” Rolley says. “We also realize that we cannot push forward a resilient Atlanta without the citizens of Atlanta.”

Other AgLanta initiatives include the AgLanta Academy, a public workshop series that allows citizens to learn about urban ag and helps attendees establish connections with various local businesses that can help train citizens in urban agriculture. There is also an urban food forest in southeast Atlanta that produces fresh food in what was identified as a food desert.

The Grows-A-Lot program puts urban farming space into the hands of Atlanta residents.
Photo courtesy of AgLanta

The next steps in Atlanta’s plan

Georgia's state-wide agriculture industry is a key part of plans for future growth. At the AgLanta Conference, Gary Black, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Agriculture, said that he saw Atlanta’s developing urban agriculture as a key part of the future of the state’s argricultural business and the #GeorgiaGrown initiative the state is working on to better market produce grown in the Peach State.

Additionally, there is a massive market for locally grown food. According to Vangilder, the Southern Company estimates that there is a $780 million market for new growers and a $300 million market for existing growers in Georgia alone. Vangilder says that Georgians are only producing one-tenth of the lettuce they eat in a given year. This means that there is not only a need for produce local consumers can readily purchase, but also the need for new businesses to form and entrepreneurs to lead those businesses in their neighborhoods.

“We don’t eat what we grow,” Vangilder says. “But what if we did? That could improve community health.”

This is where Atlanta’s plans come to a head. Two years into the collaboration, the city is launching plans that engage citizens and propel it towards its goal. As it moves into its next stage, and leaders like Cambardella and Rolley help to shape the next phase of the plan, the idea is to keep making the plan work for the people of Atlanta by tweaking what's necessary and keeping what’s working going.

“We are building a network,” Cambardella says. “It’s about food, but it’s not about food.”