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ALFI Trees Help International Students Plant Locally

Friends Khin Se and Mi Meh plant a goji berry tree courtesy of ALFI at the Clarkston High School garden.
Friends Khin Se and Mi Meh plant a goji berry tree courtesy of ALFI at the Clarkston High School garden.

It’s a spectacular Friday afternoon in late winter, warm enough to ditch jackets and enjoy the sunshine. Khin Si and Mi Meh, tenth-graders at Clarkston High School, paused while heaping red dirt around a spindly sapling to explain their favorite thing about New Roots, the innovative garden club that brought them here.

“Definitely the food!” said Khin Si, before patting another handful of red dirt into a neat ring around the tree. Khin Si and Mi Meh were gathered with about a dozen other students in the high school courtyard. In the past four years, New Roots students have transformed this space into a lush garden, complete with a small stream and babbling waterfall.

The 11 fruit trees they’re planting today—a mix of elderberry, service berry, jujube, plum, goji berry, Asian persimmon, fig, and mayhaw trees—were provided by the Atlanta Local Food Initiative (ALFI). ALFI is a diverse coalition of stakeholders working to build a more sustainable food system for metro Atlanta. They're brought together by ARC.

ALFI this year has awarded 170 trees, berry bushes and vines to community gardens across metro Atlanta, providing direct access to local food while improving the region’s landscape.

“We are especially excited to get the trees,” said Katie Hiebert, program coordinator of New Roots, which is an initiative of the International Rescue Committee in Atlanta. “That’s something we’ve wanted to do here in this space for a while.”

New Roots expands access to fresh food for the sizeable refugee community in Clarkston, by providing nutrition and garden education to both youth and adults. Here at Clarkston High School, a large number of students are immigrants, hailing from more than 50 countries and speaking more than 40 languages.

These students take everything they cultivate in their courtyard garden—a mixture of native Georgia plants and international species—home with them.

The sapling Khin Si and Mi Meh are planting today is a goji, native to parts of Asia. Both Khin Si and Mi Meh, first-generation immigrants from Burma who came through the refugee resettlement program, were familiar with the goji tree and its red berries.

The group has also planted bok choy, Asian pumpkins, and all manner of spicy peppers from around the world — which many international students eat straight off the plants, to the dismay of their spice-wary American program coordinator. But Khin Si said her favorite thing they’ve ever harvested were strawberries. “They’re really good.”

“Oh, and of course, we’ve also planted kale,” said coordinator Katie Hiebert, breaking into a laugh. “You can’t have a community garden in Georgia without kale, right?”

At the end of the day, it’s all about having access to healthy food.

“Many of our clients, they kind of acculturate and take on bad American eating habits, especially in low-income communities where unhealthy foods are often cheaper than healthier ones,” she said, “and so, giving them the opportunity to learn to grow and take home their own food, that’s pretty awesome.”

The orchard the students planted today is a gift to the generations of students to come. It will start to bear fruit in about five years.