WASHINGTON: Cleveland might best be known for its sports teams and the recent resurgence of Indians pride, but lately, the city has been thrust into the national spotlight because of high levels of food insecurity among residents. The city lacks grocery stores and is burdened by chronic diseases, including obesity and diabetes.
Between 2005 and 2009, about one in every eight adults in Cleveland had diabetes, and one in every three people was obese. Many neighborhoods in Cleveland are considered food deserts, areas in which residents live too far from a grocery store to easily purchase the basic foods needed to support a healthy diet.
But just south on Interstate 77, Akron is producing food within city limits, with urban farms and local markets providing access to fresh, locally grown produce.
Urban farms have been a defining feature of the Akron landscape for decades. Graf Growers, whose sweet corn is famous throughout Akron, started growing on its current site on White Pond Drive in 1963. Since then, it has become a hub for budding gardeners, small businesses and families in Akron. In addition to seasonal community events, Graf’s has a garden and farming center, in which it provides consulting and materials for people to plant their own gardens.
And where local businesses see a need for healthy food, they step in to fill the gap. Mustard Seed Market will open another location in Highland Square to bring wholesome foods closer to the people of West Akron, east of Portage Path. Because much of this area does not have a grocery store within two miles, it is considered a food desert. Mustard Seed will be opening a market to make healthy and whole foods more accessible to local residents.
The Summit Urban Farming Initiative is a seven-week training program in Akron each year designed to cultivate a new generation of urban farmers. It brings more agricultural enterprises to both private property and city-owned vacant land. This not only helps bolster the local economy, but also provides Akron with more sources of fresh, local food.
These businesses and projects are occurring at the front lines of larger policy efforts for the Akron area. The Summit Food Policy Coalition and the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition are groups of community leaders advocating for policies that encourage the preservation and support of agricultural lands. They’re hoping to help increase access to healthy food and foster entrepreneurial and market development in Northeast Ohio.
And the Prevention Research Center for Healthy Neighborhoods (PRCHN) at Case Western Reserve University aims to create partnerships with the urban neighborhoods of Cleveland to develop, test and implement strategies to prevent and reduce the burden of chronic disease.
The New Agrarian Center in Northeast Ohio is using hands-on farm experience, media outreach and filmmaking, and a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program to reach underserved communities and educate the public about the importance of local foods and being connected with the food system. Its programming is designed to reach people of all backgrounds. Many of its programs ask for either a donation to attend an event, or a couple hours of volunteer work with their CSA or on their farm. The New Agrarian Center also has a library of free films about urban agriculture in Northeast Ohio on its website.
As Akron continues to lead the charge on urban agriculture and provide residents with wholesome foods, the food policy coalitions and ongoing programs in surrounding neighborhoods will ensure that the future of Northeast Ohio is one full of fresh and local food.
Nierenberg is project director of the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project (www.NourishingthePlanet.org). Arielle Golden was raised in Akron and currently is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.