According to the Atlanta Food Bank, one in six children in Georgia suffers from food insecurity. The local food infrastructure has only faced more challenges over the last two years due to the pandemic. In response, a new community garden now operates on the rooftop of Maynard Holbrook Jackson High School, sponsored by Center Parc Credit Union and created by the One Love Learning Foundation. They have also partnered with the award-winning restaurant Gunshow. The restaurant’s owner, former “Top Chef” contestant Kevin Gillespie, spoke with “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes earlier this fall about his commitment to helping students learn how to grow produce and tend the garden, while also bringing those skills forward into bright entrepreneurial futures.
Gillespie and his team at Gunshow became involved with the Jackson Park Farm after deciding to be more than just neighbors. “Gun Show is maybe a hundred yards from the school…. I walked over here, and I saw the space, but really, no one had done anything with it for quite some time,” said Gillespie. “We weren’t really sure how to kick it off.” After Gillespie’s first inspection, the plans sat dormant for some time, derailed by the COVID pandemic and other obstacles. But as his restaurant team regained their footing, Gillespie said that the pandemic, with its veil-lifting effect on structural frailties in the local economy, actually helped to inspire action.
“One of the positive things that came out of it was more conversation about how we could support local food infrastructure. And so the conversation of this garden started again… A lot of very like-minded organizations came together and said, ‘We could all play a part in this.’ We made a commitment to support the garden by literally purchasing everything that it produces, and that’s how it got started,” Gillespie said. “So really, out of nowhere, it’s like we willed it into existence, and it’s been an amazing experience ever since then.”
Gunshow made good on their promise to purchase the fruits of the community gardeners’ labors, including fruits and vegetables with what fussy buyers might call imperfections. “It’s not about gardening or about farming, it’s about taking an idea and bringing it to life,” said Gillespie. “So for me, making that commitment so that [the students] would have the courage to come out here and do the work was important. So yes, we will take things, including some that may be historically we would have turned away because we want them to feel energized by this… to see this as an opportunity to do something special, and to work in partnership with an organization that believes in what they’re doing.”
The restauranteur also introduced a well-kept secret project Gunshow has been funding and forwarding along with other business partners called the Defend Southern Food Foundation. The foundation utilizes the Jackson Park Farm and out-of-work community members and students seeking internships to employ new farmers, grow food, connect local farmers to buyers, and ultimately provide dinners for food-insecure families five nights per week. They’ll soon begin raising $150,000 to continue the project through next year, so Gillespie felt it was time to bring this project to the public. He expressed hope that the students involved will feel inspired enough to pursue farming careers if it speaks to them. “The more people who become very committed to increasing not only the availability but the equitable availability of local food in any community – I support that,” said Gillespie.
Reitzes also spoke with Valerie Jackson, the former first lady of Atlanta and wife of the late mayor Maynard Holbrook Jackson. Mrs. Jackson supports One Love Learning Foundation and shares a passion for gardening with the newly engaged student farmers at the community’s new crown jewel, Jackson Park Farm.
“I’ve always liked to play in the dirt,” said Jackson, whose contributions to One Love Learning Foundation helped make Jackson Park Farm a reality. “I’ve always been a nature lover, so to speak, and even though now I don’t have a farm at home, every day I’m outside in the yard for at least an hour…. To me, it’s my sacred time.”
Jackson described how the meditative effect of gardening makes up a deliberate part of the garden’s design structure. “The garden itself is what they call a mandala design; it’s a labyrinth. And in ancient times, they used to use labyrinths as tools for meditation,” she said. “It’s a meandering path that doesn’t really have a purpose, but it serves a purpose because the labyrinth stands for wholesomeness, and it’s used to bring serenity, comfort, and healing to the soul and the mind, to those who walk it.”
One Love Learning Foundation’s mission, as they put it, focuses on three components: “Soil, soul, and society.” Their work creating student-sustained gardens for food security and community education spans the globe, having started school farms and gardens in South Africa, Jamaica, and now Atlanta. “This is not just about playing in the dirt,” Jackson said. “The young kids are learning about entrepreneurship, about growing vegetables and learning how to sell them or donate them to worthy organizations.”
One of the students who attended Maynard Jackson High School was Amir Smith, who also spoke with Reitzes about his new job tending Jackson Park Farm each week. He graduated from Maynard Jackson High School and now works for the One Love Learning Foundation. “I thought it would be very interesting to be in this program, and I was right,” said Smith. He wouldn’t want you to get the impression that the work is easy, but Smith spoke warmly about the job. “I mean, my first day here was almost my last. I hadn’t done this work before. But now, over the years that I have been doing this work, I have really valued it. I really enjoy doing this. Helping out the garden has been such an inspiration for me.”
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