Urban agriculture director brings fresh produce to those in need

Battling food deserts with community gardens, farmers markets.

At first glance, the urban Atlanta neighborhood of Washington Park doesn’t seem a likely place for an organic farm. But at the corner of Lawton Street and Westview Drive in west Atlanta, the non-profit organization Truly Living Well’s new Collegetown Garden brims with organic cabbages, kale, turnips, beets, carrots and more, all thriving in tidy rows of planter boxes. Pear, plum and apple trees blossom radiantly in the early spring sun, and a busy hive of honeybees buzzes away nearby.

“This can really be a lighthouse for nutrition for this neighborhood,” says Mario Cambardella, the City of Atlanta’s first director of urban agriculture. Some might zero in on the signs of urban neglect and decay just outside the garden gates, but Cambardella is quick to point out the historic homes, the nearby elementary school and, on a street-facing the end of Truly Living Well’s new garden, the site of a future farmers’ market for the food being grown there.

“This is really building the local food economy. Urban agriculture can really transform a community.”

Cambardella was hired by the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability in 2015 to help guide projects like the Collegetown Garden to success. In the new position, Cambardella is responsible for a wide range of activities related to urban agriculture in the city, including agricultural policy development. He cultivates partnerships with local non-profits like Truly Living Well and also assists individuals and organizations in navigating the often byzantine process of permitting and zoning related to starting their urban agriculture projects.

“Urban agriculture is relatively new to this generation of constituents, so having a point person for all these different issues is a much-needed service,” he says. “People have been asking for help getting through the process. I like to think I’m creating the most efficient means to get that community garden growing as fast as it can.”

His daily work can encompass anything from helping an individual place a planned garden’s water meter to permitting a future farmers’ market.

“We want to empower what constituents do,” he says. “It’s one of the aspects of my job I love. It’s not about what program I can start, it’s about the programs I can help.”

For Cambardella, gardening and community are both part of a long family tradition. Cambardella’s grandfather hails from Italy in a small farming community south of Naples. As Cambardella tells it, his grandfather’s first attempt to come to the United States — travelling independently and working in the coal mines of Pennsylvania — was a disaster. His grandfather went back to his home country after just nine months, but returned a few years later with a new wife and other families from his village and settled in Brooklyn in the 1930s. Together, the community successfully created small gardens and relied on each other, much as they had in Italy.

“My father still remembers having to turn the compost and cover the fruit trees in winter to keep them warm,” Cambardella says. “They made it through some of the roughest times in America. When you have this network supporting each other, it can show what sustainability really means.”

His mother’s side of the family comes from Texas and likewise honored a long tradition of living off the land. “That heritage got passed down to me,” he says. “I always had it in me to scratch a little earth and see if I could grow something.”

Cambardella grew up in Sandy Springs and attended Riverwood High School. He majored in Landscape Architecture at the University of Georgia and then went on to get master’s degrees in landscape architecture and environmental planning and design at UGA, as well. In 2012, he co-founded an Atlanta-based business, Urban Agriculture Inc., that provides planning, design and construction management of food-producing landscapes for commercial, municipal and residential clients. He signed on as the City of Atlanta’s first director of urban agriculture in December 2015, and currently lives in Chamblee with Lindsey, his wife of four years.

Many of the things he’s been working on speak to Atlanta’s potential to lead the way in the realm of innovative urban agriculture. Some of his pet projects include helping Georgia Power explore the idea of using the land under power-line easements for high-level urban agriculture and developing a potential food forest in southeast Atlanta on the site of a former farm now surrounded by urban development.

One goal is to transform Atlanta’s urban food deserts by bringing local, healthy food within a half-mile of 75 percent of all residents by 2020. “I have to show up everyday and give 110 percent,” says Cambardella. “I have to be looking toward 2020. That’s a goal worthy of working toward.”

And in the end, for him, urban agriculture is about far more than just food. “If we can fuel this type of activity, we can really build up points of access,” he says. “And it’s about more than just lettuce. It’s the eyes on the street, it’s the kids coming to play and learn, it’s all these forces for good that create growth and cultural understanding. What’s coming out of the ground has so much value.”

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