Four piles of jet-black dirt sit in the concrete courtyard of a former Athens, GA elementary school. The windows of the school are dark, vines climb the brick walls, and weeds grow in the cracks of the pavement. In segregationist times, African-Americans attended the school, formerly West Broad School. In 1903 the principal began a garden with the students so that they could take food home to their families. He offered cooking and agriculture classes in the evenings for adults. The school is no longer in use by the county, but the piles of black dirt outside the old classroom represent a full-circle return to the school’s empowering role in the community.
On the old ball field, lettuces and cucumbers and squash and watermelons grow. Silas walks past the field, rolling his two-wheel grocery cart behind him. Silas lives nearby in a public housing project of small apartments. He’s picking up a giant bag of black dirt for the little patch of tomatoes and squash he’s planting in the apartment’s raised bed. The additional food will supplement Silas’ diet, much of which comes from the Food Bank. Silas gets the starts and the soil for free from this school, Athens’ first community market garden project.
Athens, GA has been fighting over chickens and vegetables. The college town, set in the upper reaches of the south’s Piedmont, has plenty of agricultural resources. The University of Georgia offers expertise from their ag department and volunteers and instructors from its student body. The farm-to-plate foodie scene has hit downtown. But the city can’t seem to figure out urban farming policy. Recent battles over chickens in backyards has resulted in an all-out ban on selling food (or livestock) grown in residentially zoned areas. Since all but the school properties within the city are zoned residential, market farm opportunities do not exist in Athens.
Almost. The Athens Land Trust has found the urban ag loophole and they are using it to dovetail with their programs designed to ensure affordable housing for low-to-middle-income residents. Hancock Court, for example, is a neighborhood of modest bungalows and ranch houses a few blocks from downtown. The older houses are being bought and remodeled or torn down altogether, replaced with bigger homes. The classic gentrification scenario. So Athens Land Trust works to find homes that can be placed into permanently held trusts that allow for the homes to be retain a value appropriate for qualifying low-income residents.
The school sits at a prominent corner of Hancock Corridor, a neighborhood with a poverty rate of 57.1% and an unemployment rate of 16.1%. Since it’s a school, the Land Trust can have a market farm on the ample, vacant schoolyard. They have a second market garden in another Athens neighborhood.
With a Community Food Project grant in 2010, the Land Trust established the two farms and hired a manager. A training program teaches four neighborhood residents how to be an urban farmer. They earn a small wage for their twenty hours of work per week. Twenty more volunteers can take home CSA boxes when they contribute five hours of work per week. The rest of the produce operates as a u-pick. Same with the soil and starts that Silas picked up.
Across town, in another rapidly gentrifying community, a different set of urban farmers have their hands in newfound dirt. The Athena Gardens is an apartment complex for low-income senior citizens. The residents live in individual apartments and share a large backyard. Deborah Collella manages the property and she beams with pride as she leads two residents to the new raised beds in the backyard.
They recently had a spaghetti dinner for the entire senior center. The 49 residents shared sixty-five pounds of greens harvested from the season’s first planting. Deborah and Mike, the maintenance supervisor for the center, manage the garden with the help of eager residents, some of whom gardened their entire lives and help plan the plantings, others who’ve never grown a bit of food in their lives. The food can’t be divided among residents yet (regulations mandate that the state-run, low-income facility be able to equitable distribute all free resources), but Deborah and the volunteers look forward to bringing more food out of their backyard and sharing it at community suppers.