By Darlene Wolnik

As a Lakewood native now living in New Orleans, I make sure to get back home periodically to replenish my Midwestern soul. I’m a community food system organizer, so whenever I’m back I’m checking out markets and farms and new local-sourcing restaurants. I’ve noticed that what is happening in Cleveland’s community food system–meaning the grassroots work to build regional food and farming—is fairly unique and has lots of potential. I decided to explore it a little deeper.

Earlier this year, I attended the conference for the regional initiative Sustainable Cleveland 2019. Hosted by the city, the event looks ahead to the 50-year anniversary of the last time the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. It presents to the world a region that has since become one of the greenest cities in North America.

Long-time environmental organizers, as well as high school students and corporate types, listened to regional and national leaders and broke into small work groups to discuss sustainability issues. The fact that a focus on local food was included in this multi-year sustainability project made it stand out, compared to other such projects around the country.

For most food system organizers in the U.S., the first decade or two is usually spent in lonely, fenced-off areas of organizing these efforts, promoting social activity like community gardening deep within food deserts or encouraging economic activity through farmers markets. In Cleveland, though, food activists are fortunate to be able to collaborate with other sectors on larger environmental and economic outcomes. (The city-led sustainability work also coincides with the savvy Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition that began in 2007 with funding from Steps to a Healthier Cleveland. The breadth of work it undertakes is impressive: entrepreneurial, environmental and public health goals are all visible on their project list.)

A bit of history may shed light on why Cleveland’s food systems work connects so well with the mitigation of brownfields, re-imagining public housing as farmland and the regional conservation of land. Cleveland has a rich culture of neighborhood organizing around crime and blight issues. Many of those organizations eventually grew into neighborhood development corporations that now include local food and farming concerns. In the process, neighborhood leaders gained a lot of experience with small business acceleration, leading to projects like Green City Growers at the nationally known Evergreen Cooperatives, the collaborative citywide “Chicken and Bees” rules and anchor businesses like Great Lakes Brewery. All of that has allowed food work in Cleveland to outpace many other cities’ of the same size.

Yet it’s important to note that this thrilling beginning is just a beginning. Across the country, the impulse is strong for food systems to expand successful pilots too quickly or allow industrial structures to take over. Growing farmer, food producers and necessary ancillary businesses takes time and tact and adding more devoted users of community food systems is delicate work, especially once you’ve already won over the “early adoptors.”

Yes, regional sustainability and neighborhood know-how is a great start. Now how can Cleveland win the race?

1. Continue to connect with the larger sustainability community. You need friends in many places. Everything about well-designed food systems relies on long-forgotten structures being rebuilt and new ones boldly added with the serious negotiations about land use, labor and price being led by the producer, rather than the middleman. To get things requires connections beyond other food activists.

2. Keep an open mind. Be on the lookout for people with good ideas who do not easily fit into non-profit project lists or storefronts. For instance, I recently met a young woman from an East Side neighborhood who had great ideas about projects to increase health and wealth for her at-risk neighborhood but has yet to find support. Not interested in starting her own non-profit but in making a (small) living with her ideas, she is unsure how to proceed. I meet many such people like her across the country. Overall, food activists need to be more welcoming to people who aren’t insiders.

3. Share. Successful neighborhood food projects should share their blueprints with those that are just beginning. If that can take place across the usual east side/west side divide that often happens here, even better. Where did the start up money come from? How was it managed? Which city or regional champion assisted in the completion of that initiative? What held you back at first?

4. See local as regional. City governments need to advocate for regional ideas such as regional food distribution points or farmer training centers that can bring some of the wealth to the rural or suburban areas. Resiliency in food system work is best achieved at the regional rather than the local level. What would happen if the farms just outside Cleveland suffered through the recurring floods that the innovative farming community around Burlington, Vermont has experienced? How would those rural farms rebuild themselves? Would city market shoppers understand the lack of goods more than a year later and continue to support those market vendors? Take it from someone who knows (having lived through the 2005 levee breaks after Katrina and the BP oil spill) the quickest response after a disaster will not be through the host government but through support from farmers, distributors, and local-food consumers throughout the region

5. Local food planning can have a serious economic impact, so incorporate it into larger neighborhood development efforts that include transportation dollars and infrastructure repairs.  In 2012, Market Umbrella piloted a combined economic impact study of farmers markets in Baltimore, Los Angeles and Cleveland and issued a report on the markets collectively and individually. The Cleveland markets chosen in the study had impressive numbers: the Coit Road market had an combined economic impact of $1,267,890.37, the Kamm’s Corner market’s impact was $3,420,287.20 and the Tremont Farmers Market impact was $1,063,265.13. More studies of this kind need to be completed for individual markets and for entire market systems as well.

6. Seek more public and private investment, and track that investment. A 2010 study by community economist Michael Schuman says that a 25 percent shift in Northeast Ohio’s economy toward a sustainable food system could create more than 25,000 jobs, providing work for about one in eight unemployed residents, among other benefits. But it would require land, workforce training, entrepeneurship initiatives and nearly a billion dollars of new capital.

7. Let neighbors have a say in how money is spent. Any time that investment decisions can be in the hands of those working at the grassroots level, small and large ideas can move forward when needed.

This will get us on a path, by 2019, to renewable energy systems, sensible water use, soil compost programs, walkable/sittable neighborhoods, healthy and affordable food everywhere and good jobs for neighbors new and old.

Since 2000, Darlene Wolnik has focused on food and farming campaigns first as deputy director and then as marketshare director at New Orleans-based Market Umbrella. Since 2011, she has worked on dozens of projects as an independent researcher and consultant for community food systems across the United States.