Growing Agriculture: An Interview with Susan Varlamoff

Name: Susan Varlamoff

Affiliation: Director of the Office of Environmental Sciences, University of Georgia

Bio: As Director of the Office of Environmental Sciences (OES), Varlamoff promotes the College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences’ environmental research, teaching, and extension programs and seeks funding opportunities and collaborations for faculty working on natural resource issues. She also maintains a database of environmental programs for the College, writes the environmental report and E-Newsletter, and seeks collaborations with entities on areas of College expertise, especially water and local food.

 Location: Atlanta, Georgia 

Photo credit: University of Georgia

What was the food system in Atlanta like before urban agriculture started to take root?  How has it changed?  

Urban agriculture has picked up speed in the last five years due in part to the recession.  Currently the unemployment is greater than 10 percent, homelessness has increased, and there are many foreclosures. Some neighborhoods have been decimated—drugs are a problem in these rundown neighborhoods, half of Atlanta is a food desert, and Georgia ranks #2 in childhood obesity.

Public and private partnerships are working to improve access to fresh food by establishing farms and community gardens, and stationery and mobile food markets in underserved areas. Through these initiatives we are seeing the potential that urban agriculture has to transform the city, neighborhood by neighborhood.

How have nearby residents reacted to the new urban gardens? How have the gardens impacted these communities?

When well-managed, urban gardens are transforming neighborhoods. The best example is an area in the lower 4th ward where drugs and sex traffickers abound. A low income housing development was razed and in its place is a robust garden/farm that is now growing collards, broccoli, and cabbage. Rashid Nuri, founder of Truly Living Well, has hired 40 people to help him farm 6 urban farms and gardens.  And the Atlanta Mission, the city’s largest homeless shelter, now boasts a community garden where the men cultivate vegetables year round to supply the mission’s kitchen with fresh food.

How have local groups come together to promote urban agriculture in Atlanta?  What is the University of Georgia doing to help? 

Many foundations, nonprofits, federal, state, and city governments are working together to implement the Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s  Power to Change Sustainability Plan to bring fresh food to within 10 minutes of 75 percent of the people by 2020.

The University of Georgia is working on all levels of this massive undertaking. We are working with Mayor Reed’s office to develop a business plan for a farm across from City Hall. We are assisting with soil testing and working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Brownfields division, developing stormwater management of city lots, assisting with fundraising and communication, and educational programs. We are also helping communities set up farmers’ markets and we drive the Fulton Fresh truck loaded with fresh vegetables and fruits into food deserts, where we also give nutrition and cooking classes.

What have been some of the greatest challenges associated with growing food in Atlanta?  What have been some of the most exciting successes?

The biggest challenge is the soil which can be toxic from gas stations and manufacturing facilities that once used the land.  It would be helpful if the city composted yard and tree trimmings so they can be used to nourish the soil. There is no detailed plan to bring fresh food to the underserved and the movement is growing organically, but not necessarily efficiently. We are beginning to work on this now and looking at what other cities have done.

The work we do at the largest homeless shelter gives us greatest satisfaction. We put in a community garden across from the Atlanta Mission shelter housing 900 men. Most of those involved in planting and managing the vegetable gardens have been successful in re-entering society. Also, the local food fever that has gripped Atlanta is euphoric. So many people and so much energy is fueling the movement – from students, moms and dads, chefs, foodies —it almost seems like a revolution!

What do you envision for the future?  How do you expect this movement to continue to grow? 

We expect to work together with the Mayor’s office to produce a detailed plan to bring food and nutrition classes to the underserved so we can be more efficient in putting farms and community gardens throughout the city. We also need to work on ordinances that will encourage this movement to grow. We need to continue working with foundations to secure the funding we need for infrastructure and equipment on farm sites.

Atlanta has a long growing season and plenty of vacant lots so we can create a very vibrant movement that removes food deserts and makes good eating and nutrition a way of life!

How should people get involved if they are interested in bringing urban agriculture to their own cities or towns?

People who are interested in participating in urban agricultural initiatives should work with the Cooperative Extension offices that offer information on how to get started, how to take soil samples, what to grow, and so on. The land grant universities can also have a great impact in teaching people in cities how to grow food. Additionally, here is a booklet that I produced on farming in urban settings.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

Go to Source