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.'"