K. Rashid Nuri

For cultivating oases of fresh produce amid our food deserts

The older man steps out of a gray Chrysler Grand Voyager. He wears a tan fisherman’s cap and a brown tee topped with a plaid workshirt. People chat as they fill baskets with carrots, chard, kale, collards, lettuce, onions, cabbage, and mustard. The man briskly moves from person to person, hearing the day’s news or making sure necessary tasks are completed. He stoops to take a quick check of the soil. Feels it run through his hands. Almost everything is planted in raised beds; concrete makes it impossible to plant directly into the ground.

Meet K. Rashid Nuri, one of the country’s foremost minds on urban farming. Former appointee to the United States Department of Agriculture, Nuri is a lover of jazz, expert on lunar cycles, and creator of the nonprofit Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture. His urban farms bring fresh food to areas of Atlanta where rubble, history, and poverty are cross-pollinated.

The sun beams down, making it hard to see Wheat Street Baptist and historic Ebenezer looming over this farm as weighty reminders of what once was. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife lie in eternal rest a few blocks east. Interstates 75 and 85 cross historic Auburn Avenue to the west. The Old Fourth Ward, the neighborhood that surrounds Nuri’s Wheat Street Garden farm, is rich in history but bereft of basic services. It is a food desert, designated by the USDA as an area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly an area composed of predominantly low-income neighborhoods. The 700-plus-acre Old Fourth Ward district is bounded by Ponce de Leon and Decatur/DeKalb to the north and south and the Connector/Piedmont and the BeltLine to the west and east. More than half of the residents are low income. The only nearby places to shop are gas station convenience stores or small markets. Sure, just outside the O4W borders, there’s a Publix on Piedmont, a Kroger on Ponce de Leon, and the historic Sweet Auburn Curb Market on the other side of the Connector underpass. But because 75 percent of O4W residents do not own cars, those stores are not easily accessible. The nearby convenience stores carry Twinkies, Snickers, sodas, beer, and lottery tickets, but not much else. The Exxon station on Edgewood, the newest and nicest store around, has produce—if a handful of lemons, three black bananas, and two oranges can be called produce.

According to the USDA, lack of access to fruits and vegetables is contributing to health problems. Obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes are rampant in food deserts, causing medical issues that add financial strain to already-tight budgets.

Nuri wants to make food available and, more importantly, educate people about where food comes from. This summer the farm held a camp. Four two-week sessions, at $365 each, taught kids about gardening, sustainability, and more. Through a partnership with the Year of Boulevard project (see page 91), scholarships went to dozens of children who live in nearby Section 8 housing. Throughout the year, schools and parents bring their city kids to the farm to see what a tomato or pea plant looks like.

A city kid himself, Nuri took awhile to find his calling as a farmer. He was born in Boston. His father was an educator; his mother, a community activist. Young Rashid wrote a paper for school on what he hoped to do with his life: He wanted to explore the world while merging science and politics. That curious intellect brought him to Harvard in 1966. The time was “crazy,” he recalls. African colonies were gaining their freedom and the civil rights movement was in upheaval. During his college years, Nuri met his future wife, whose parents took him to Wilson Farm, a 128-year-old farm just outside of Boston. It was there that ideas began to germinate. He imagined the possibilities and opportunities of urban agriculture, an unusual occupation for an Ivy Leaguer. Nuri realized Harvard could teach him how to be a doctor, lawyer, or businessman, but it couldn’t teach him how to farm. So, after graduating with a degree in political science, he began to think about ways to merge his field of study with farming. He went to the University of Massachusetts and earned a master’s in plant and soil sciences. Eventually he worked for Cargill, the international food producer and marketer. He traveled to thirty-five countries to develop food systems, including a 1987 stint in Nigeria where he ran thirteen cotton gins and traded maize, sugar gum, and native vegetables.

In the early 1990s, Nuri snagged an appointment as deputy administrator of the Farm Service Agency and Foreign Agricultural Service for the USDA. He worked in Washington, D.C., for four years during the Clinton administration.

In 2006 Nuri, with partners Eugene Cooke and Ernest Dunkley, came to Atlanta and started Truly Living Well. They began with an experimental plot in a Riverdale backyard, then expanded: a farm on Harbin Road in southwest Atlanta; one on Washington Road in East Point; and Good Shepherd Farm, in partnership with Good Shepherd Community Church, on Lawson Street in southwest Atlanta.

In 2010 Truly Living Well began looking for a fourth location and lucked onto the O4W lot, which is still owned by Wheat Street Baptist, the historic congregation known for a century and a half of activism. In December 2010, with the help of a $50,000 grant from the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation, Wheat Street Garden was launched. The farm occupies a four-acre plot that previously housed another innovative project, Wheat Street’s low-income housing development built in partnership with the federal government in the 1960s.

The farm now yields thousands of pounds of fresh food annually. Some of that food is sold to local restaurants; during a recent visit, I watched chefs from the Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta shop for produce. Some is sold at the market held every Friday. Some is delivered to people who buy subscriptions to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Participants in the SNAP and WIC food programs can get produce at two-for-one prices.

Kwanza Hall, Atlanta city councilmember for District 2, lives in the area and shops at Wheat Street Garden. He says people cross racial, economic, and educational lines when they come together around the farm. “The farm is filling a huge void in our community,” says Hall, who believes the Old Fourth Ward, along with Truly Living Well, can become a national model for sustainably battling food deserts.

The farm is not just worthy; it’s beautiful. The verdurous beds contrast with the boarded-up buildings encircling them. Poblano peppers, Pension bush beans, kohlrabi, Nepal tomatoes, and a plethora of flowers flourish. Everything is symbiotic: Scraps enter vermicomposting bins. A colony of bees pollinates the plants and produces sweet honey. Chickens cluck while roaming a large wooden pen. All within a stone’s throw of Downtown.

Nuri has big dreams for the next five years. His goal is to extend Truly Living Well’s farms to forty acres throughout the city. He wants the farms to be educational tools, creating agricultural entrepreneurs who will start their own farms elsewhere, transforming blighted lots into oases of fresh food.

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.