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Cities Encouraged to Help Build Georgia’s Sustainable Food Future

May 16, 2017
This article appeared in the May 2017 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
As of late, Georgians are finding themselves at the intersection of sustainability and health as they decide where their food dollars go, which also impacts their health and local economies.

“The farmer, once the most respected member of his or her community, is making a cultural comeback, and not just because the farm-to-table fad has caught on in every town and city in the state,” said Suzanne Girdner, community outreach manager & Georgia Food Oasis coordinator at Georgia Organics. “Instead of looking to clever marketing campaigns telling them what they should and shouldn’t eat, Georgians are looking to each other to shape their own food system.”

Making these decisions require input from every community representative one can assemble. It’s a heavy lift to get so many to the table, let alone to agree on something that’s as impactful as our food future.

But it’s doable: “We can elevate Atlanta’s profile as a city that takes a wholesome and innovative approach to feeding its citizens while simultaneously improving sustainability and livability for all citizens” wrote the hopeful members of the Atlanta Local Food Initiative (ALFI), a coalition of public agencies, organizations, farmers and advocates.
That sentiment became the foundation for ALFI’s “Plan for Atlanta’s Sustainable Food Future,” a visionary document that outlined eight key goals to improve healthy food access, supply and consumption. The plan was adopted a year later and endorsed by 100 public and private partners.

“Fortunately, those pioneering visionaries a decade ago started a conversation that is now blossoming around the state,” said Girdner. “The ALFI plan still serves as Georgia’s seminal declaration and guidepost for galvanizing a locally based food system. But it’s more than that, the creation of the plan itself was the tool that catalyzed partnerships, made visible the economic potential, and encouraged local governments to adopt similar goals in their comprehensive plans and local policies.”

In 2009, Mayor Kasim Reed set a goal of eliminating Atlanta’s food deserts by ensuring 75 percent of residents had access to fresh, local food within ten minutes of their home by 2020. In 2014, the city of Atlanta passed an urban agriculture zoning ordinance to recognize farms, market gardens and community gardens as a land use and encourage their proliferation. To aide in that endeavor, the city created a brand new position, and hired Mario Cambardella as Atlanta’s first Director of Urban Agriculture in 2015.

As a central partner and former fiscal agent of ALFI, Georgia Organics is taking its ALFI experiences and community tools in other cities and towns across the state to assist to launch Georgia Food Oasis initiatives. In a Food Oasis community, a network of public and private coalition members, including local farmers, is formed to begin developing sustainable food designs and impacts that will contribute to overall community well-being.

“These citizens know that fresh, affordable, local food has a positive impact on their community’s health, economy, and environment,” said Girdner.

Last year, the building blocks of another budding relationship between community members and arms of the government took shape in Augusta.

A project called Sibley Soilworks was proposed at a community meeting in the format known as “Potluck and Pitch.” The effort, which won the votes of the community, was awarded $2,500 in seed funding from Georgia Organics, and aimed at turning a canal nuisance, hyacinths, into rich compost for nearby Harrisburg residents to use in over 200 residentially owned raised beds. Harrisburg is a food desert but through the effort of these home gardens, residents are expanding their fresh food choices and building a food oasis. Sibley Soilworks was only possible through public and private partnerships—GROW Harrisburg, Augusta Canal Authority and Georgia Department of Environmental Protection.

And ultimately, the city saved money by reducing costs on the disposal of hyacinth plants, and the residents gain nutrient dense soil for their home gardens.