Rashid Nuri

Love Thy Farmer

Apr 23, 2018

We’ve lost our connection to the land and to our food. If we want healthier, happier communities, we’ve got to re-establish that link,” says Rashid Nuri, founder and CEO of Truly Living Well (TLW) Center for Natural Urban Agriculture, an urban farm in Atlanta. His belief in the integral role that fresh, local food plays in every aspect of our lives—a role that goes far beyond simple sustenance—is the driving force behind his work and why TLW isn’t set in rural Georgia’s bucolic landscape, why he’s instead brought the farm where its benefits are essential: the neighborhoods tucked deep within Atlanta’s city streets. “This is where the people who need us are,” he says.

While we used to live within walking distance of where our food was grown, more than 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, and much of what we eat is shipped in from thousands of miles away. Often, in our cities’ poorest sections, there’s a lack of access to any type of fresh, healthy food, much less produce that’s been locally grown. Called food deserts, these areas—and the multiple health and economic issues they lead to—are the problem Nuri aims to solve with TLW.

He understands the dynamics of the urban lifestyle. He didn’t grow up a farmer; he grew up a city boy in Boston. He went to Harvard in the mid-1960s amid a climate of societal shifts that pushed him to earn a degree in political science. He soon realized the work of a lawyer or politician wasn’t the way he wanted to enact change; he wanted to get hands-on and saw farming as the fastest route to food independence, the foundation of self-determination.

“To build a country, you have to feed and clothe your citizens,” he explains. “I studied building nations in undergrad, and that is when I started to get interested in the importance of agriculture.” So he went to the University of Massachusetts and earned a master’s degree in plant and soil sciences and then put these ideas into practice, working in Africa to help emerging countries get better established by developing food systems.

In 2006, he had the idea for TLW. He left nation building behind and came to Atlanta to build on a smaller but equally significant scale. “I just felt drawn to come here, and I knew there was a need here for access to clean, fresh food,” he says. He and a partner started with a backyard garden in the Riverdale area. Now, TLW has four growing sites: its founding site, seven acres in the West End area near the Atlanta Falcons’ stadium; a site with its main offices near the Atlanta airport; and two others, including an urban fruit orchard. All yield a wide variety of certified naturally-grown fruits and vegetables—everything from bananas to beets. “We grow pretty much everything that we can grow down here,” Nuri says. TLW’s harvests are available at on-site farmer’s markets, through a community-supported agriculture program (where people can purchase a share of its sites’ harvests in advance), and through food co-ops that provide it at low or no cost to area residents living in poverty.

It’s an established fact that lack of access to these nutritious foods is a major contributor to the health issues ballooning into epidemics in our country: obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Rectifying this by reversing the desolation of Atlanta’s food deserts is the most obvious mission of TLW. But its roots go much deeper. The food provided by the farm sites is a means to a much larger end. “Our goal is not just to improve physical health by connecting people back to their food and food sources, but also to connect people to each other and to the wider community,” Nuri says.

He stresses why food is the best way to forge these bonds. “There’s nothing more intimate than sharing a meal with someone. That is where we talk, have real conversations,” he says. We know this: It’s why so many of our celebrations revolve around food. Yet we don’t practice it daily anymore. “We grab a plate and eat in front of our phones or the TV,” Nuri says. “We need to be sitting down at the dinner table together. It’s crucial to the cohesiveness of family and of community.” This “together time” around food helps families function better, and food is a common denominator that can even bridge the divides between diverse cultures, backgrounds, and experiences.

TLW is using several methods to plant these concepts in minds both young and old. In addition to bringing fresh food to the people where they are by making it convenient and more affordable, its workshops and training courses empower people by teaching them how the food was produced and how they can do it themselves while also educating them on the myriad ways food affects their health and overall wellness. “The education we provide is as important as the food; it is key,” Nuri says. “We’re showing folks what real food is and that when you eat better, you live better. We’re using food production as the plate to serve broader programs.”

TLW is reaching thousands with its work through after-school programs for children, summer camps, and urban growing “boot camps” that put people in the garden, digging in the dirt and soaking up practical knowledge that they can take back to their own patch of earth and use. But it’s more than “Green Thumb 101.” “We teach financial literacy, job readiness, and coping strategies in some of our programs too, like our Growing Families sessions,” Nuri says. “It’s really comprehensive education.”

It’s working. You can now find a farmer’s market in the areas around TLW any day of the week and see residents tending plots in their own yards. “So many now know why they should care about their food and where it comes from and how it was produced,” Nuri says. “They are asking more questions about what they are eating and reading labels. The landscape in our area has changed entirely.” The aesthetics of TLW’s farm sites, oases of green popping against a concrete palette, enhance the area too. “They are spaces where the community can gather and be creative,” Nuri says.

Nuri has no doubt that urban farming is the lynchpin of a physically and mentally healthy populace, from the neighborhood level on up, and believes its role will only increase in the future. “People in other urban areas should look into urban farming; it’s the only way to ensure access to healthy food for all,” he says. He offered a few practical tips, pointing to composting as the way to achieve the healthy soil that will yield healthy plants. He also stressed getting the support and involvement of civic leaders. But his seminal piece of advice is the simplest: “Just start doing the work. Most of what we do can be handled with a hoe, rake, and shovel,” he says. “And it’s worth the effort. This work grows food, but it also grows people and grows community.”

Words by Jennifer Kornegay

Photo by Thomas Burke