After years of conceptual planning, the Athens-based Farm to Neighborhood Foundation has been awarded nearly one million dollars for the launch of the East Athens Wellness Experience.
The East Athens Wellness Experience is one of 142 Georgia projects receiving funding through the Georgia’s Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund to “improve neighborhood assets like parks, recreation facilities, sidewalks and healthy food access in communities all across the state disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the Georgia Governor’s Office. Three other Athens-Clarke County projects are on the list of preliminary award recipients, as well.
“I’m still trying to process the fact that we won this grant,” said Farm to Neighborhood founder Rashe Malcolm. “As a community, we need to heal from the inside out and create inclusion for all members of Athens-Clarke County. We want to bring in so much light with the East Athens Wellness Experience that people don’t see the darkness.”
As part of W&A Engineering’s corporate citizenship platform dedicated to creating social, environmental, and economic sustainability for all, members of the firm’s corporate citizenship, marketing and business development, landscape architecture, land planning, and civil engineering teams have been working closely with the Farm to Neighborhood Foundation (F2N) to help make both the project and the grant possible.
Initially contacted by F2N regarding the opportunity in early 2022, W&A Engineering worked alongside Malcolm’s team to create a comprehensive concept plan and cost analysis in the early stages of project planning. Once it became time to apply for the grant itself, W&A Engineering Corporate Citizenship Coordinator Amy Kissane spearheaded the application effort.
“Amy took our vision and our story and made it all come alive in this grant,” said Malcolm. “I have been doing this community work for years with no money. This has all been possible because of our collaboration with Jon Williams, W&A Engineering, the voices of the East Athens community, and many others.”
The East Athens Wellness Experience will expand the current Farm to Neighborhood programming dedicated to providing healthy, affordable meals and educational programming around nutrition to limited-income community members.
The primary project goals center around the addition of a commercial kitchen to the existing recreation center, as well as the redevelopment of the Triangle Plaza. These site improvements will create the opportunity for a community garden to be planted on site, green spaces to be expanded for purposes of social gathering and recreation, and a culture of healing and wellness to be established in a historically undeserved area of Athens-Clarke County.
The .57-acre property will be reimagined to better align the available site space with F2N’s mission. The majority of the property currently utilized for parking will be redeveloped to include a dedicated teaching and community recreation area, two pollinator planting areas, a community garden, and expanded community greenspace. Improved pedestrian crosswalks are also planned to create better connectivity to the existing roadway infrastructure of Nellie B. Avenue and Vine Street.
In total, nearly 2,500 square feet of community gardens, 2,500 square feet of sidewalk, 2,000 square feet of landscape area, and 650 square feet of dedicated teaching area are planned on site.
According to data recorded by the USDA’s Economic Research Service in 2019, the East Athens Wellness Experience project site sits in a large area classified as “LILA using Vehicle Access and 20 miles.” This identifies the area as a low-income census tract where more than 100 housing units do not have a vehicle and are more than 0.5 miles from the nearest supermarket.
The census tract which houses the project site, tract 13059030200, is classified as having a “relatively high number of households (393 of 1707 total households (23%)) without vehicles that are more than one-half mile from a supermarket,” according to the Food Access Research Atlas.
In 2019, the median income of tract residents measured $25,889 with over seventy-five percent of the tract being considered low-income and low-access. Nearly nine hundred of these residents are children under the age of 18, according to the Food Access Research Atlas.
Regardless of income, 96.53% of this tract lived farther than one mile away from the nearest supermarket, qualifying tract 13059030200 as a “food desert.” A food desert is an area where access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods is extremely limited often due to the lack of grocery stores, farmer’s markets, or other healthy food providers.
According to registered dietician Holly Moran, MS, RDN, LD, CDCES, people living within food deserts are at higher risk for obesity, nutrient deficiencies, high risk for chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, and higher risk of mental health problems like depression and anxiety due to both the physical and psychological effects of not being able to access healthy, fresh, and nutrient-dense foods and beverages.
By introducing not only new sources of fresh produce and healthy food options but also targeted nutritional education and active training areas into this community, the East Athens Wellness Experience seeks to create and inspire a renewed environment of healing, wellness, and caretaking in East Athens.
“My entire business model for the past 30 years has always been ‘community takes care of community,’” said Malcolm. “This is a vibrant community with people who work hard and take care of their children. We want to give people a fresh outlook.”
Rashe Malcolm and the Farm to Neighborhood Foundation have the next three years to take the East Athens Wellness Experience from a conceptual plan to a completed, open, and operational health and wellness hub. W&A Engineering President and CEO Jon Williams, ASLA, PLA is excited to work alongside F2N to see the project through to fruition.
“At W&A Engineering, we build better communities for all, and we align ourselves with other service-oriented organizations who strive to make the world a better place,” said Williams. “Athens, especially East Athens, needs the East Athens Wellness Experience, and my team is incredibly honored to walk alongside Rashe and her team to transform these plans into a living, breathing community space for personal, nutritional, and community enrichment.”