Tucked away off Main Street in College Park, not far from the train tracksthat runthrough the city a few miles south of Atlanta, is a three-story Victorian home with a wraparound porch and narrow driveway. A few times a month an unassuming “free food” signis posted out front.
The driveway leads to a backyard agricultural oasis of sorts, with 5 acres of tomatoes, sweet potatoes and other fruits and vegetables planted throughout. Near a large array of 32 solar panels are sunflowers as tall as most people. Hoop houses, large greenhouse-like tents, nurture more crops. Beehives are toward the back.
Here is the home of the Metro Atlanta Urban Farm, a living demonstration of sustainability that provides a bounty of free produce, community garden space and agricultural workshops for its neighbors.
College Park and East Point have numerous census tracts where more than 33% of the population lives at least a half mile from a supermarket, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. These tracts are more colloquially known as food deserts.
The Urban Farm received a federal grant of nearly $300,000 last year to boost its educational programs and help increase access to fresh foods in underserved areas and promote careers in agriculture.
“What the grant is doing is to help me keep my doors open,” said Bobby Wilson, the nonprofit farm’s CEO and co-founder in 2009 by Wilson and his wife Margarett.
Last week, Wilson and and his team set up a free food stand outside Atlanta Good Shepherd Community Church in Atlanta’s West End. The farm also has regular food giveaways on-site, attracting dozens of neighbors.
At this giveaway, two plastic tables laden with the farm’s apples, onions, and cabbages were offered to as many as 60 people who came by. They were also welcome to free meats, boxes of Clif energy bars, bagged chips and water. Recipients walked back to their cars or back down the block, carrying paper bags full of food.
One West End resident, Mia Reid, saw the stand from the Interstate 20 overpass by the church, then pulled in and loaded up a food bag. While there, she talked with Wilson about wanting to home grow food. Reid, who says she has dreams of starting her own farm, said she will visit the Metro Atlanta Urban Farm to start learning.
“Just being out in the community and him willing to take the time to speak with me even though he’s busy,” Reid said, “it just speaks volumes about who Mr. Bobby is, and I appreciate it.”
Earlier this month, more than a dozen people in protective bee suits learned about harvesting honey at one of the workshopshosted this year by the Urban Farm.
While the farm’s grant project is just kicking off, Wilson’s name and operation are well-known across the urban agriculture landscape. The USDA’s Urban Grower’s webpage features a picture of Wilson with USDA employees. Wilson was honored as a CNN Hero in 2022, and promotional posters from the honor are sprinkled across the farm.
Arthur L. Tripp Jr., director of Georgia’s Farm Service Agency, recalls hearing of the man he affectionately called “the infamous Bobby Wilson” back in Washington, D.C., where Tripp worked for U.S. Rep.David Scott, D-Atlanta, on agricultural policy issues.
“When we were discussing urban agriculture, the gentleman Bobby Wilson continued to come to the forefront because of his expertise and experience in the field,” Tripp said. Tripp says Wilson has a penchant for cultivating community by making visitors feel welcome.
Sharonte Williams, management and program analyst for the USDA’s Urban Agriculture and Innovation Office, visited the farm in June to check on the grant project, which started up this spring.
“I am looking forward to seeing what they will accomplish between now and the next year,” Williams said.
At the honey harvesting event, Wilson jokedabout going to space as participants donned the protectivesuits, which resemble something astronauts might wear. Wilson streamed the event on Facebook Liveand riffed throughout the morning.
“We’re getting ready to go to space, y’all,” Wilson said at one point. “Our equipment has been tested.”
Event attendees often stay for conversation after programs end, and many return for future workshops, Wilson said.
One member of the metro area’s network of urban farmers is Bill Crumpler, also known as “Bill the Beekeeper.” Crumpler, who led the honey harvesting workshop, has his own urban farm in Fayetteville and monitors some of Wilson’s hives.
“I think spaces like this are needed everywhere, on every corner,” Crumpler said. “Because not everyone has a backyard that they might be able to grow their food.”
The farm offers a community garden for neighbors to grow their own food. One, Carolyn Frazier of Southwest Fulton, has been tending her plot for 7 to 8 years now. She learned about the farm from her neighbor and the two have bonded over gardening tips, Frazier said.
One afternoon, a group of visiting students came by the garden and talked with Frazier, who was able to share some of those tips with them. Frazier said the garden has given her a place for more than just growing food — it’s where she meditates, connects with nature, and makes friends, too.
“I appreciate Mr. Wilson for that, I really do appreciate it,” Frazier said. “Otherwise I would not be gardening, because I do not have a space here at the house to do it.”
The federal grant has enabled the farm to hire two interns this summer, including Kandake Wallace, who is planting, harvesting, and leading some of the summerworkshops.
Wallace, a Ph.D. candidate at Florida A&M University, said she was attracted by a combination of the project’s acreage, Wilson’s tenure in urban agriculture, and Wilson’s background at another Historically Black College and University. Wilson has a degree in agriculture from Alcorn State University.
“I just want him to teach me everything he knows,” said Wallace.
Earlier this month,Wilson hosted a group of fellows from the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. The U.S. State Department program has brought nearly 5,800 young leaders from every country in Sub-Saharan Africa to the U.S. for academic and leadership training, according to the program’s website.
Clark Atlanta University is among the universities that welcomethe fellows for six weeks each year. Since the program’s inception in 2014, the group has spent a day of community service at theUrban Farm, said Mesfin Bezuneh, an economics professor at Clark Atlantaand the school’s Mandela Fellowship director.
The fellows harvested, planted and distributed food this year, learning about food philanthropy. Some were moved to tears, Wilson and Bezuneh said.
Wilson’s influence on students is remembered by one, Ernest Dixon III, who was a student at Mays High School when he told Wilson he wanted to earn a business degree in college.
“Why don’t you just put agriculture in front of that business?” Dixon recalled Mr. Wilson saying.
Dixon, who worked for Wilson as a manager at the Urban Farm, went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in agriculture business from Alcorn State University. He now works at Cargill, a global food company that works with farmers to increase regenerative agriculture and sustainability practices.
“Just educate the next generation, that’s what Mr. Wilson has taught me,” Dixon said. “And I am trying to instill that in the generation that I am in.”