On a Saturday morning in early March, a dozen people have gathered around a conference table in the spartan front room of the former rectory of St. George Catholic Church at East 67th and Superior. The property was purchased more than a year ago and turned into Community Greenhouse Partners, an urban farm project that's struggling to find its stride.
The group — friends and supporters summoned by a barrage of e-mails — has convened to brainstorm ways to move the shoestring project forward. There's talk about grants to apply for, fund-raisers to organize.
Tim Smith, Greenhouse Partners' founder and leader, offers a morsel of good news: Premier Produce, a local food distributor that specializes in high-end restaurants, might be interested in becoming a steady customer for trendy microgreens if Greenhouse Partners can reliably provide 82 pounds of them every month, year-round. Smith suggests they could be grown on one wall of the reconditioned greenhouse that's going up in the parking lot.
It's a small idea, a potential modest if steady income stream, and just a blip in the massive amount of produce the distributor handles every week. But it carries within it the germ of a much larger idea that's running like an electric current through many Northeast Ohio organizations. The notion of building the region's menu from locally grown foods is taking shape like it hasn't in a century.
"Over the last year, the comments and questions to our office on the whole concept of urban agriculture and community gardening have grown exponentially," says Marcia Fudge of Warrensville Heights, a congresswoman representing the East Side of Cleveland and a member of the House agriculture committee.
Indeed, Northeast Ohio has cultivated a national reputation for its leadership in urban agriculture: The green website SustainLane ranked Cleveland No. 2 in America in terms of sustainable food growth.
As the movement takes root on its own, the city of Cleveland has taken interest in coaxing the process along. In 2009 it unveiled a "food task force," part of a broader initiative it calls Sustainable Cleveland 2019, a 10-year project developed by the city's Office of Sustainability. The goal is to source 25 percent of all the region's food locally by the end of the decade — a hearty step up from the current 1 to 3 percent estimates of today. The fringe benefits bandied about include some 28,000 new jobs and an infusion of more than $4 billion into the local economy.
But the drive toward connecting more local food with more local mouths began long before the city came onboard, and has come to include an army of key players: growers both urban and rural; agricultural suppliers; distributors to restaurants, institutions, and grocery stores; farmers markets and other forms of local produce vending; and advocates raising public awareness about eating locally.
"I think it was going to happen one way or the other," says Karen Small, chef-owner of Flying Fig in Ohio City. "But it's helpful when local government gets involved."
But how helpful isn't clear — and neither is how much the city can influence the creation of the vast infrastructure those in the food community say will be necessary to make such a major change in what we eat. As the region draws nearer to Sustainability 2019, some are asking whether the city has drawn up a sustainable model in the first place.
A return to local food
Cleveland's roots as a growing center extend deep into its history. The urban area once boasted a plethora of working greenhouses as well as many smaller community gardens that were vestiges of the victory gardens of World War II.
"I was at a community meeting a few years ago, with a room of half African American constituents and half Eastern European, average age about 72," says Cleveland city councilman Joe Cimperman. "I started talking about urban agriculture, and they started laughing. They said, 'What you call urban agriculture is what we did in our backyard to put food on our table.'"
But growing locally disappeared as city life began to modernize, fast food took over street corners, and rural and urban America grew apart. By the end of the 20th century, only a handful of community gardens survived. Many outlying farms had switched to "commodity" crops like corn and soybeans, used in factory food manufacturing. Yet Cleveland was starting to take a renewed interest in local food.
It probably started with the chefs, back when the city was widely considered a dining backwater with a tired roster of neighborhood spaghetti emporiums, chop suey joints, traditional eastern European diners, and musty steakhouses.
Parker Bosley was working at Sammy's in the Flats in the mid-'80s when he realized he didn't like the way his food was turning out.
"It seemed to me that nothing was really great because the products weren't great. I said, 'I grew up in Ohio, I know there are good tomatoes, there's good chicken.' But the restaurants were dominated by industrial food. So I went out and started asking farmers if they would sell to me."
He was soon followed by other chefs like Zack Bruell and Michael Symon, who realized that working more closely with growers would get them better ingredients than taking a chance on something shipped 3,000 miles. Within a decade, the city was dotted with like-minded chefs, seeking out just-picked vegetables and fruit from nearby orchards, cheese made by Amish farmers, and beef raised in the pastures of Portage County.
Locally sourced ingredients became more readiliy available to everyday consumers too when Donita Anderson started the North Union Farmers Market at Shaker Square in 1995.
By the time Cleveland was starting to think about sustainability in the mid-2000s, there were sprouts all over the region. Cuyahoga Valley National Park's Countryside Conservancy program, which offers homesteads to a new generation of farmers, began in 1999. The Ohio State University Extension's Cuyahoga branch had started its market garden program to train urban farmers in growing for sale in 2006. The number of farmers markets in Cuyahoga County alone climbed from three to more than two dozen within a decade. At the same time, Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs, started providing "shares" of locally grown food each week — and have exploded in popularity in recent years.
And the City of Cleveland took notice of it all.
The Office of Sustainability was created in the spring of 2005 under former Mayor Jane Campbell and carried on into the tenure of Frank Jackson. Its initial mission was simple: Find ways to save money. When Campbell hired Andrew Watterson as the office's first manager, the idea was that he would find enough savings to justify his salary.
"When I first came, there was more emphasis on green building, energy efficiency, renewable energy, and waste recycling," says Watterson, who left the city in December to join a local sustainability consulting firm. "[Local food] emerged as something residents cared about and we should look at."
In 2007, the city created the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition. The group brought together various players to develop a strategy for regional food production, distribution, and consumption.
The group released a 2010 report titled "The 25% Shift: The Benefits of Food Localization for Northeast Ohio and How to Realize Them." It has become a reference point for many of the current conversations about expanding the local food market. It also marked a giant leap in ambition, beyond just getting city residents to eat healthier.
The coalition extended Cleveland's "25 percent local" food goal to the entire Greater Cleveland area — 16 counties in all — and created a blueprint of the region's assets and challenges, and what steps would need to be taken. The prize is surely significant: the promise of almost 28,000 new jobs (including 10,000 new farmers and farm workers), $4.2 billion in economic activity, and $126 million in new tax collections.
In 2009, the city convened a summit at Public Hall that served as the launch of Sustainable Cleveland 2019. The guest list included key players from across the region invited to brainstorm, set goals, and form working groups.
Jenita McGowan, the newly named head of the city's sustainability department, describes the office as "a distributed leadership model" — one that aims to make use of energy already being poured into the effort.
"Leadership happens at all levels to change our culture to incorporate sustainability into the economy," says McGowan, who previously served under Watterson. "The '25 percent report' is informing people's work around town. It does a great job of presenting a snapshot of where we are now."
Cleveland can be thanked for coming up with the "25 percent local" mandate, but it's harder to say whether it has come up with a plan that has any hope of succeeding — and whether the city itself will play a significant role in making it happen.
Bumper Crop of Roadblocks
I'm not clear on the goal, to be honest with you," admits Karen Small of Flying Fig, one of the region's first leaders in the local food movement. "It's an admirable goal, but I'm not sure what [25 percent] looks like. Is it getting [local food] into grocery stores? Is it getting it to people? Getting in to the schools would be admirable. Distribution would be a roadblock. Education would a roadblock."
Small's sentiments echo those of many observers. If the city's plan comes to fruition, Cleveland's future could look much like its distant past. But it's going to take more than urban farms and farmers markets to create a functional business model. It will take thousands of new farmers, who must be trained from the ground up. It will take massively pumped-up processing and distribution systems. All that will take lots and lots of financial investment.
Darwin Kelsey, executive director of the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy, points out the realities: not six-acre urban farms, but 100,000 acres of land returned to agricultural use. To him, 25 percent is a pipe dream.
"If we get 5 percent, I'll be ecstatic," he says. "I think the goal is admirable. It's just that the reality of creating new farmers and new farm-related businesses will take longer. I came to the conclusion that the best-case scenario would [require] 8,000 new farmers. Creating people with the skills and resources to do that is going to take longer. We're a society that lacks almost all the skills and culture. We have to go through a culture change to support all the systems that will be required.
"When we talk about re-localizing the food system, there's a lot of impediments," says Kelsey. "Access is a problem — access to capital, access to production and business skill training, and then there's all the infrastructure, supplies, after-farm middlemen.
"For me, what's going on in the city is great, but it's primarily about awareness: building commitment to a changed system, rather than volume. Right now it's not as important to most people as it would have to be to change."
And it's all stuff that may be beyond the capacity of the city to address. While Sustainable Cleveland has raised awareness and educated more people about the value of producing and consuming food locally, it's merely dipping its toes in the water, serving primarily as a connector and educator among those most likely to actually accomplish something — from major institutions like Cleveland Clinic to deep-pocketed groups like the Gund and Cleveland Foundations.
Some, meanwhile, are skeptical of all the big talk and big organizations involved. One of those is urban farming pioneer Erich Hooper, who has run Hooper Farm off Clark Avenue in Ohio City since 1994.
"It seems like there's no inclusion," he says. "The city has this goal, but the people involved aren't the people that do what they need to do — people who produce the food. Is it just a bunch of people downtown sitting around a table throwing out ideas they're trying to implement? To get to 25 percent, they must invest in infrastructure — the mom-and-pop businesses in our community, before we can go to a larger scale."
Ben Bebenroth, the chef behind Spice of Life catering and the recently opened Spice restaurant in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, estimates that he sources as much as 80 percent of his food from local suppliers at the height of the harvest season.
But the Cleveland harvest season is one of several key concerns cited by those who question Sustainable Cleveland's viability.
"Let's face it. For restaurants and chefs to think they're going to be able to do it 100 percent — we have a very, very, very short growing season," says Tony Anselmo of Premier Produce, which sources as much of its food as possible from local growers. "Our biggest obstacle is probably the peaks and valleys of availability."
Steve Schimoler, who owns Crop Bar and Bistro in Ohio City, calls the 25 percent "totally attainable, but you have to look at what that 25 percent of the mix is.
"We're not going to have local shrimp or avocados or olive oil," he says. "I tell people sustainable agriculture doesn't mean shit unless there's a sustainable business model."
To some, that model starts with making it easier to free up farmland.
"The biggest obstacle is probably going to be getting control of the land," says Congresswoman Marcia Fudge. She's referring to Cuyahoga County's countless vacant lots, which are scooped up by the county Land Bank and cleared for reuse. While some lots have been leased to small-time urban gardeners, larger-scale farmers who want to put permanent structures into use want to make sure the land won't be scooped out from under them by a developer.
"We need to be able to assure them that someone's not going to come along and say, 'Hey, that's my property,'" says Fudge. "The great thing about the Land Bank is if you have a lot next to your home, you can get it for $100. But we need to look more at how people can get access to larger lots."
That's something Community Greenhouse Partners' Tim Smith knows firsthand.
He spent two years looking at city-owned land all over town, finding everything either inappropriate or unavailable. In one case, the city was holding out for manufacturing to return to a long-vacant, cleaned-up brownfield, hoping for more jobs per acre than farming could create. Smith's group finally bought the decommissioned St. George Church from the Cleveland Catholic Diocese in December 2010.
"We need to get the city to free up Land Bank property, to make it easier for people to take over vacant lots to be able to grow food," he says. "We need space to grow food, and that's the incentive to do it. As long as it's an arduous process to get land from the Land Bank, people aren't going to do it."
Perhaps Kelsey puts it best when asked about Sustainable Cleveland's prospects for success.
"It took us decades to get into the mess we're in," he says. "It will take us decades to get out."
While the city plays referee for the movement's many players, others are working on their own to chip away at the mountain of issues that need to be solved.
Like Parker Bosley and Michael Symon before him, Steve Schimoler focuses on serving local products at Crop Bistro. But he's also expanding the market for them with the side business he founded: Local Crop, which aggregates produce from local small-time farmers and distributes it to various restaurants.
"The image of the chef going to the farmers market with a basket is bullshit," says Schimoler. "It's not a Robert Frost poem. That model is very romantic, but it's not sustainable. If you make the commitment that it's going to be on your menu, you don't want to find that three days later the truck shows up and your stuff's not on it or they underestimated how much they had or it's not available. You have to have a product that is buyable and available, and is quality-assured and you can trust."
The "25 percent local" report contains a grandiose proposal to create a Northeast Ohio Food Authority — a public or private group that would provide support and resources to developing food-related entrepreneurs. That hasn't happened yet, although the Food Policy Coalition is a step in that direction.
Jenita McGowan of the city's sustainability department recognizes that the effort must expand beyond city boundaries. The coalition has grown to include Cuyahoga County, with Executive Ed FitzGerald's office and members of the planning commission on the advisory board. But with the new county government in place only a little over a year, it has yet to develop a fully formed food policy of its own.
"We understand that our food system is a regional endeavor," McGowan says. "The urban agriculture that's happening here is providing so much value to the area in terms of quality of life and local ways to get food. But if we want to get to 25 percent or beyond, we need to look to the region to have a robust local food economy."
Like Darwin Kelsey, Erich Hooper emphasizes the need to get the next generation involved with farming, and he uses his Ohio City farm as a learning center for school groups.
"With gardening, when you do it, it becomes second nature," he says. "The idea is to train kids so we can build the infrastructure. You give them hands-on experience and now you have a bunch of people who are proficient."
Spice of Life's Ben Bebenroth suggests that it all boils down to the roots of who we are and who we could be.
"Watching money go right into people's pockets is imperative," he says. "It's not just about it staying here. It's about what people are doing with it while it's here. I go out to Monica [Bongue]'s farm at Muddy Fork [in Wooster] — I've been buying from her for eight years. You go out there, and you see a new windmill or a greenhouse. You see her kids going to college, and they see agriculture is a good way to make a living. I think it's a transition of body and mind and spirit."