Unity Garden feeds Atlanta’s hungry

Chattahoochee Nature Center grows hundreds of pounds of produce every week

The shutdown won't stop vegetables from growing at the Chattahoochee Nature Center's Unity Garden.

There are still hundreds of pounds of kale, radishes and carrots coming up out of the ground at the Roswell attraction every week.

And though the doors are locked to visitors and the 200 volunteers have been sent home, either somebody picks that produce or it goes to waste.

That’s why Julie Hollingsworth and her staff of three have been working long hours. “We’ve had lots of tuckered-out days,” said Hollingsworth Thursday, as she cut the last of the winter crop and began planting snap peas, summer squash and other warm-weather vegetables.

Hollingsworth, manager of horticulture and gardens at the Nature Center is glad to put in the time, knowing that there are customers looking forward to those beets and collards.

Each week gardeners at the center bag a van-load of produce and bring it to the  North Fulton Community Charities, where it is distributed to needy families.

“It’s a partnership,” said Holly York, executive director of the community charities. “They figure out what to plant based on what the families will eat. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Last week the Chattahoochee gardeners brought 340 pounds of kale, turnips, turnip greens, lettuce and other winter vegetables to the Roswell foot pantry, all of it produced from a quarter-acre plot.

“It used to be called a victory garden,” said Hollingsworth of their compact beds. “You can be amazingly productive in a small amount of space. But you’ve got to keep after it.”

And it’s not going to waste: “They hand out every bit of produce we bring them.”

The Chattahoochee Nature Center covers 127 acres of gardens, green space and wildlife. It is usually filled with children taking outdoor classes to learn about pollinators and how their food gets to the grocery store.

Due to the COVID-19 crisis, the center is empty, except for staff. They recently conducted a drive-through native plant sale, with online orders, to minimize contact.

Center spokesman Jon Copsey said the staff are taking every precaution to avoid the chance of contagion, using masks and gloves and maintaining social distance. “Only a certain number of people are in the greenhouses at any given time.”

But because they are providing food at an insecure time, the garden has been deemed an essential service.

“We fit the definition of critical infrastructure,” said Hollingsworth.

York said the charities serve about 400 families a week, but are increasing that number weekly as they become more efficient.

“We’re still serving hundreds of families with fresh produce, grocery items and toiletries that they don’t have access to.”

The Nature Center has been growing and harvesting vegetables for the North Fulton Community Charities since 2010, and has delivered 33 tons of food in that time. Last year alone the garden delivered four-and-a-quarter tons of veggies.