As some may know, I am originally from Cleveland, Ohio and follow the food systems and community organizing work there with great interest. I grew up in one of the inner ring west side suburbs, often visiting the West Side Market and various small butchers and bakeries but the only “farms” I saw were the historical sites around Akron or when spotting an Amish farmer as we headed south on vacation at 65 mph. Farming was clearly the past for most modern Buckeyes, and we thought huge factories and transportation hubs were our only possible future. Or so it seemed for most of my early life since, like many Cleveland children, any trip through the Flats would include open car windows allowing in the soot and smoke of the factories and a proclamation: “smell that, kids? That smell is JOBS.”
However, the decline of manufacturing along Lake Erie in my lifetime has sent its great cities in search of other answers, and I am very proud of Cleveland’s new dedication to sustainable infrastructure and value-based employment for its citizens. A powerful example is the city’s Sustainability 2019 plan that was born from one of our most shameful moments-the fire on the Cuyahoga River in 1969, caused by the chemicals and pollution we allowed to be dumped into it.
1969-Cuyahoga River on fire, Cleveland Ohio
Since the global media descends on Cleveland every decade or so to revisit that fire, it is likely they will come at the half century anniversary with renewed gusto. In preparation, the Sustainability 2019 initiative was born to reply with evidence of Cleveland as “one of the greenest cities in North America” as the city’s Director of Sustainability put it at one of their conferences. Because of that focus, I believe that Cleveland is moving faster to a hybrid model of creating post-industrial sectors that can thrive with the vestiges of whatever manufacturing that it claims (wind power anyone?).
I found this out on one of my trips home when noticing that the food system there had a slightly different hue than many others that I regularly visit. Often, when I dig to find the beginnings of citywide or regional food work, I find that it stems primarily from the cultural sector as seen in my other home town of New Orleans, or from a deep need for a new entrepreneurial answer, a la Detroit, or from a public health crisis of lack of healthy food access as in the Bed-Stuy area of NYC, or all of those needs at once, such as many First Nations and too many others. It seemed to me that Cleveland’s food work came from the deep awareness of the destruction heaped upon it from that industrial framework that had now mostly fled to warmer and less regulated places. That strong environmental underpinning was also present because of the first-rate organizing done by many 1960s-present activists including the Ohio Public Interest Campaign, where I was trained as a community organizer and worked for almost a decade.
Maybe because of that industrial vacuum, the need for jobs there seems tempered by the caution for real answers that allow workers stability and skills and not just a paycheck handed to them by a new corporate overlord. The cooperative movement afoot there seems to rise from this and from the professionally run, long-standing community development organizations embedded deep in the neighborhoods, east and west. And of course, credit must also be given to other areas in the region that started cooperative development such as Athens Ohio.
So, because of the hard work done by generations before, the development of the food work seems relatively balanced and quite ambitious. It seems to still lack regional cohesion but it is not ignoring that need either. I found a deeper awareness of the inequities and the need to work with existing both the corporate and informal sectors than in many other places that I visit and work. There is much to do there and mistakes will be made on the road to this new face for my old city, as I mentioned in a piece for Belt Magazine. Still, I am proud of the work being done there and hope you find time to read their new Roadmap and to visit too.
The City of Cleveland Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Ohio State University Extension, Cuyahoga County,and the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition have developed a sustainable food cluster roadmap in Cuyahoga County, with a core objective to increase regional jobs, revenue and sustainability by supporting local food and beverage businesses.