K. Rashid Nuri: Sowing the Seeds of Community in Atlanta

A former USDA official is using urban gardens as the centerpiece of an effort to create jobs and feed the hungry.

(Photo credit: Anthony Masterson) K. Rashid Nuri, who studied at Harvard and worked for the USDA under Bill Clinton, now oversees five successful urban farms in the Atlanta area.
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Many people say they were called to be in whatever profession they’re in, but few as powerfully and clearly as K. Rashid Nuri, who now runs one of the country’s largest and most successful urban gardens in Atlanta.

“Sitting in a library over in Cambridge, Mass., God told me to learn everything I could about food, from the seed to the table,” Nuri recalls. “So that’s what I did.”

That educational odyssey has taken a lifetime. Born in Boston, Nuri was an undergraduate at Harvard when he says he heard that divine call. After completing his degree in political science, he entered a plant and soil sciences program at the University of Massachusetts. A 12-year term with food producer and marketer Cargill and posts with the USDA during Bill Clinton’s first term allowed Nuri to travel to more than 35 countries developing food systems in underdeveloped nations—and improving our food system at home.

But it’s his present work that may be his most satisfying. As president and CEO of Truly Living Well, an Atlanta nonprofit that operates five large urban gardens, Nuri is changing a city from the inside out—through food. Nuri says the 501(c)3 stands on three legs: producing quality food, which it does through its urban farms, a CSA, farmers market, and free food distribution; education, including its successful Urban Growers Program and youth development efforts; and a three-pronged focus on community building, economic development, and job creation.

MORE: Food From the Sky: Eco-Friendly Urban Garden Preserves Heirloom Produce

“Eighty percent of Americans live in urban areas, but the food they eat is imported to them from outside the city,” he says. “We’re seeing that process shifting. One of our emphases is ‘grow where you are.’ ”

In a nation in which one in four children is hungry (because of a deficiency in the quality or quantity of food), Truly Living Well is serving and teaching thousands of Atlanta residents. Nuri says that yes, the communities in which he’s started gardens are considered food deserts, a term that is too often reserved for communities of color in an urban context. Many white rural and suburban Americans, too, often lack access to fresh, healthy foods.

But as it turns out, the revolution in the way we grow, distribute, and view food is happening not only in the pastures and fields, but also in cities. The four-acre Wheat Street Farm, which opened in December of 2011, sells produce to both low-income residents and high-end restaurants. The farm's impact is already being felt throughout the city, so much so that in its August issue, Atlanta Magazine named Nuri one of its 2012 Groundbreakers.

And yet, hearing Nuri talk about the Atlanta project, one hears, alongside a deep pride for its accomplishments, a sense that the work is just beginning. “When I worked in the Clinton administration, I had 2,200 people who reported to me, we supported 35,000 folks, and had a budget of $18 billion,” he said. “Right here we’re trying to get our first million.”

These days, you’re more likely to find Nuri in an office than a field. That’s partially by nature—“my back isn’t as strong as it used to be”—and partially by design.

“I can get a lot more done through ten young people than I can do myself,” says Nuri, who puts as much work into growing quality humans as he does plants. “One of my rules is that I never ask someone to do something that I haven’t done myself.”

And there sure isn’t much he hasn’t done.

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