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Growing more than food in inner city

Marc Lefkowitz  |  08/05/09 @ 2:31pm

Bob Shields was raised in the Garden State, but walking through the Urban Farm between Lonnie Burten Recreation Center and the Outhwaite public housing projects on Cleveland's east side reminds him why he likes his transplanted home. He explains that neighbors like to pick and fry green tomatoes from the raised beds planted for the community outside of the farm's black chainlink fence. Inside the fence, the neat rows of tomatoes, greens, and veggies fattening in raised beds are the handiwork of a dozen kids from the neighborhood who grow food for their families or to sell each summer (the garden's partner, Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority, paid for the fence after a less respectful 'neighbor' yanked 100 heads of lettuce out of the garden).

This half-acre plot on the grounds of a former elementary school is one of five urban gardens operated by the Cleveland Botanical Garden where Shields works. We also visit the 3-acre Learning Garden at the Dunham Museum site in Midtown where kids from the Hough neighborhood learn by cultivating and in open air classes about food production ? from composting to planting, growing, tending, making products like salsa and finally, showing up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning to set up a stand and sell their wares at the Shaker Square Farmer's Markets (and at noon on Wednesdays at the Cleveland Clinic).

The Botanical Garden calls them the Green Corps and today at Lonnie Burten they are having some fun smashing crates of melons with shovels and piling the bits on top of rows, covering them with compost to produce a sweet mélange of smells and fertile soil for future planting. The melons are from AVI Food Systems, which collects 1,500 pounds of food scraps per week in big white buckets from its operation in the Cleveland Clinic main campus cafe. The kids are learning to take food waste and turn it into compost right where they'll grow food using a layering technique called lasagna mulching.

Shields imagines a day when the Botanical Garden and the city collaborate on an urban farm with a large-scale composting facility and an all-season greenhouse that operates with renewable energy.

"These gardens are expensive because we have to pay for the wood chips and the compost ? we had 30 yards of compost delivered just to this garden," he explains. "We need about five acres in an industrial type of site for composting, and a relationship with the city to get woodchips.

"(Milwaukee-based urban farming pioneer) Will Allen was here recently and showed us how it can be done."

Shields would like to leverage the Botanical Garden's operational skills, the aspirations of urban farming advocates like Cleveland Councilman Joe Cimperman and the well-funded plans of Neighborhood Progress, Inc.'s ReImagine a More Sustainable Cleveland to move beyond neighborhood based urban farming to the scale of Allen's Growing Power, Inc.

For now, Shields has to manage the Urban Farm's 70 young workers who will leave for school in three weeks, just after the big harvest. Each of the five urban farms leases its property, usually from a community development corporation. The model of community based food production has spin off success ? at Lonnie Burten, CMHA's office workers are planting their own raised beds, and the organization paid for the construction of a gazebo where seniors will watch the kids in the garden or as they play in the new Outhwaite Splash Park. This green space and working farm, essentially in the courtyard of one of the city's most troubled public housing projects, is a more inviting place today.

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