Kent follows the pattern of Rust Belt city decline with recovery, including a focus on sustainability. Edible Kent fits in the framework of moving toward sustainability while also addressing economic needs for low-income folks, while the city’s economic recovery and development strategy has been so focused on gentrification that one could call its view of sustainability anti-poor.

By Lis Regula and MJ Eckhouse

The following is an excerpt from Deviant Hollers: Queering Appalachian Ecologies for a Sustainable Future released by the University of Kentucy Press. 

Edible Kent utilizes land that is publicly owned or accessible to the public and grows food free for the public without barriers or gatekeeping mechanisms. Maintenance is done by volunteers, there is no private ownership, and the resources are situated in areas with the highest need (local food deserts) rather than the most profitable locations. It is a queer project in the oppositional sense put forward by Halperin, where queer “acquires its meaning from its oppositional relation to the norm. ‘Queer’ is whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.” In addition to successfully deconstructing normative views of community, local agriculture, and land use, the community-based model is replicable in a range of communities assuming there exists need and willing- ness to address these issues in a progressive fashion. Edible Kent queers geographic divides by challenging the idea of rural, urban, and suburban spaces and bringing agriculture into the city. Edible Kent also queers socioeconomic divides by putting resources that are necessary for life and often subsidized via nonprofit and government organizations to work in areas of economic development and locations close to downtown. The goal of this chapter is to serve as a case study in addressing food sovereignty through a perspective that is based in queer theory and attempts to apply a social justice framework.

The city of Kent is a “queer space” in the sense used by Jaffer Kolb, who explains queerness as “an open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances, resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning.” Kent, like many college towns, is a place of breaking binaries, be they geographic, social, economic, or otherwise. For this paper, Appalachian queer ecology is reimagining the natural and constructed landscape in ways that seek to break heterosexist and colonial systems. It is geographically a few miles outside of Appalachia, lying in Portage County, Ohio, which is adjacent to the western border of Trumbull County, Ohio, the western edge of the northern subregion of Appalachia. It also lies about fifty miles north of Carroll County, Ohio, which also makes up the western border of Appalachia. Economically and socially, Kent has significant influence coming into it from these and other regions of Appalachia, connections that are reinforced by the city’s annual folk festival and vibrant folk-art community.

Kent is functionally Appalachian in that the space is colonized metaphorically by the university and literally by the Western Connecticut Land Reserve before that. Geographically, Kent is queer in many regards: it does not fit the model of rural, urban, or suburban very well, and it is land that has been claimed by many cultures over the course of its existence. Between its location adjacent to Appalachia as defined geographically and its history as a colonized colony (colonized first by settlers and later by the university and those in the upper socioeconomic level that is associated with it), Kent is undeniably an Appalachian space.

Some of the principles of queer liberation state that people have a right to a life free of oppressive forces, that individuals have the right to the means to meet their needs for a thriving life, and that there should be no judgment or shame in meeting one’s needs as one can. These principles queer the standard nonprofit model by taking away administrative and bureaucratic processes that act as gatekeepers between the organization and the individuals being served, as those processes functionally judge and can shame individuals attempting to access the resources provided by Edible Kent. As Edible Kent is providing necessities, it is the organization’s belief that these resources should be available without judgment to anyone. Edible Kent attempts to live by these principles in its organizational structure and in its interactions with other community members. While these last principles are in line with many modern nonprofit organizations, Edible Kent works to use equitable and just practices in its organization. By equitable here, the author is talking about treating people without bias and doing the emotional work of addressing implicit bias proactively. Just practices in this sense means recognizing the fact that our current system is structurally biased and working to break down those structures of inequality where possible.

More recently, Kent State University has been lauded for its LGBTQ+ Center on campus and its inclusive, supportive, and accepting atmosphere. The campus LGBTQ+ Center has attracted a growing LGBTQIA+ population to the city of Kent. The university and the city house many diverse and inclusive organizations serving various faiths, ethnicities, and racial groups, with active Jewish and Muslim religious communities, an African studies program, an African drum group, and Black United Students at Kent State University.

Kent, like most areas, is neither a sanctuary of progressivism nor a backwoods bastion of conservatism; however, there is a stark contrast between Kent and the surrounding county. Portage County, Ohio, is primarily rural, one of nine Ohio counties that flipped to back President Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 after supporting President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. As a reliably Democratic stronghold, like many college towns, Kent has a more progressive character than its surrounding towns and townships. The Edible Kent project challenged the identity of Kent as a liberal city. The project’s focus on agriculture, mutual aid, and community-driven land usage was met with obstacles and increased regulations from the city’s community development department, which revealed inconsistencies in local leaders’ and stakeholders’ perceptions of the city itself, as well as demonstrated the common pattern of “progressive” signaling serving as a convenient public relations strategy without extending cohesively throughout a policy, community, or organization. This pattern of “pinkwashing” (appealing to the LGBTQIA+ community) or “greenwashing” (appealing to the sustainability community) are not unique to Kent and, in fact, are seen in multiple places throughout the United States as ways to benefit economic development through virtue signaling progressive causes.

In the early spring of 2013, in Kent, Ohio, several local friends interested in sustainability started talking. Early discussions focused on the needs of the city residents, including the student population. One of the major needs was economical fresh produce. The city offered few grocery options, including only one grocery store on the edge of town and a small food co-op downtown. Food insecurity is not unique to Kent but prevalent across the United States, in both rural and urban areas. We pursued a new community garden, based on the free food forests common in the Pacific Northwest. One of the other points of discussion within the early stages of Edible Kent was that of individuals’ relationship to land that they do not own. While Edible Kent periodically would have educational programming that included the history and construction of “seed bombs” for adding beneficial seeds to inaccessible spaces, we eventually decided to stick with the more conservative approach and refrain from using seed bombs or other forms of guerilla gardening at first. Instead, Edible Kent used plots with the permission of the owner, whether public or private, and opened up that land to a more public space based on the community’s relationship to the land. This change in focus from the ownership of land to a relationship with the land is more of an incremental approach than a revolutionary one, and the thinking was that, as with a violin string, the appropriate pressure must be applied to a system so as to build tension and make music without breaking the string entirely. With the tension between Kent’s perception as progressive and a less progressive reality, between the town and the university, and between the city and the conservative surroundings, this incremental approach was thought to be the best action at the time.

Kent follows the pattern of Rust Belt city decline with recovery, including a focus on sustainability. Edible Kent fits in the framework of moving toward sustainability while also addressing economic needs for low-income folks, while the city’s economic recovery and development strategy has been so focused on gentrification that one could call its view of sustainability anti-poor.

Revitalization in Kent focused largely on reinvesting in parks and emphasizing sustainability in the town development projects. One of the efforts in this period of rebuilding was a downtown beautification project filling flower beds. These flower beds became the target of our efforts when we were citing a novel form of community garden in the city. The city’s community development department saw them as a way to help attract new visitors and residents and build on their “Destination Kent” theme, which describes the renovations occurring downtown and in the more affluent neighborhoods closely connected to the Kent State campus. The issue of gentrification around the city was seen by many as a form of settler colonialism, with the attraction of out-of-town interests (including those catering more heavily to students) providing the path to prosperity in the view of local government officials. Edible Kent’s use of public land and their encouragement of locals to develop underutilized and functionally abandoned spaces in these more inclusive and social justice-focused ways built the foundation for a discussion of the commons that contrasted heavily with the official actions of the city.

During the first year of Edible Kent, we focused our initial public effort on identifying the food needs of the city residents via survey at the Haymaker Farmers’ Market. This farmers’ market, founded in 1994, was a highlight of the city and a hub of civic activity. In the beginning, our idea was simple: to respond to the needs of Kent residents by providing sustainably produced food and education to those in need with as few barriers as possible, and to do so in a publicly accessible place, free of shame or stigma. To do this, we needed a few things, including volunteers, land, raw materials, outreach, and funding. We wanted to work specifically with other organizations and individuals who shared our values of communitarianism, resilience, and respect for autonomy. This form of like-minded collaboration would not just make sure that we were exemplifying our ideals but also promote solidarity among similarly aligned entities.

The first task was to locate a space. We first prioritized city-owned land, believing that we could urge the city to grant us its use since they would save money by allowing us to conduct land maintenance. We compiled a list of city-owned properties based on the county recorder’s office data and then filtered those results on the basis of their location and size. We visited each site to narrow our selection down before approaching the city council. We also came around to the idea of using guerilla gardening (covertly planting in unused spaces without permission) to utilize neglected, blighted, or otherwise unused spaces,and we organized a campaign to encourage front-yard gardening. We did so to normalize and promote food production as a more favorable option than unkempt lawns or overgrown weeds. Our goals centered on the understanding that there is untapped potential for land use that serves aesthetic and functional purposes, including food production and improving food sovereignty. This stands in contrast to the ways in which land is typically used—either as a standard-issue front yard with an acceptable, manicured garden or as a neglected, weedy lot. These two dominant residential-area land uses lead to artificial food scarcity, which increases food costs and exacerbates negative environmental impacts.

We also needed volunteers to help plant and maintain the gardens. For this, we heavily utilized the Kent Community Time Bank. Time banks are a novel economic model that is both decentralized and more egalitarian than typical monetary-based economic systems. Time banks have been growing in popularity across the United States, and one was adopted in Kent in 2010. The core concept of a time bank holds that every person’s time is equally valuable. Under this model, the currency is time instead of dollars. This model fits well with Edible Kent because of its anti-oppressive structures and its core alignment with liberation principles. The time bank allowed us to compensate volunteers for their time, thus attracting more volunteers to Edible Kent without incurring monetary expenses. We also managed to attract more volunteers through collaboration with Scratch Local Food, a food truck vendor in Kent. Scratch donated a meal for every Edible Kent volunteer on planting day in the spring and on harvest day in the fall. Connecting these for-profit, public, and nonprofit— many of which function by anti-capitalist principles—resources helped advance discussions of creating an equitable and sustainable community, as well as highlighting which of those structures already existed.

While many of the board and founding members of Edible Kent were members of the LGBTQIA+ community themselves, Edible Kent extended little concerted outreach to specifically LGBTQIA+ groups to collaborate and work on the gardens. One factor in the lack of this targeted outreach was the paucity of specifically LGBTQIA+ groups in Kent other than Kent State University’s LGBTQ+ Center. Considering the disproportionate incidence of homelessness and poverty among the LGBTQIA+ community compared to the non-LGBTQIA+ population, it is highly likely that our efforts to help the economically marginalized communities in Kent touched and helped LGBTQIA+ individuals as well. Additionally, throughout its time, Edible Kent has made a point to use inclusive language and be as accepting as possible. Edible Kent was not the only LGBTQIA+-led agricultural organization in Kent or the surrounding area, a feature that made the area an interesting space to work and differentiated the sustainable agriculture scene in the area from that in much of Ohio, aligning it more with Appalachia’s sustainable agricultural scenes (as an example, look at the work by the annual Queer Farmers’ Convergence).

As we reflect on the factors that facilitated the successes of the Edible Kent project, several key takeaways emerge, which may offer useful and applicable insights to those undertaking similar projects. First, successfully challenging and transforming social structures requires community collaboration. Edible Kent’s successes were heavily reliant on collaborating with various groups whose missions complemented one another, as opposed to groups whose missions overlapped. By harnessing the help of our community, all involved were able to leverage our collective array of talents, resources, and perspectives to lay the crucial groundwork for building and strengthening the sense of community, solidarity, and justice that informs successful liberation efforts.

To fully function as a community and integrate into American culture, LGBTQIA+ folks cannot continue to simply take a back seat and decide to disengage from rural life. Instead, full integration into society requires that we continue to fight for both the legal and lived equality that other folks can more readily access. This means being in the public, even in relatively rural areas and those areas that might be less conducive to complete recognition of the humanity of LGBTQIA+ individuals.

MJ Eckhouse served as the Ohio Environmental Council’s Communications Coordinator. Previously, MJ served as the Outreach Specialist for Community AIDS Network/Akron Pride Initiative (CANAPI) where he supported the organization’s HIV testing, counseling, and prevention services, as well as outreach and education efforts. Prior to serving as Outreach Specialist, MJ pursued his passion for helping those in need by organizing and advocating for LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws and policies. MJ holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Kent State University.

Lis Regula is full-time faculty in the biology department at the University of Dayton.