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Shift happens: Finding local food self reliance

Marc Lefkowitz  |  08/22/11 @ 11:30am  |  Posted in Local food system

Can Cleveland achieve self-sufficiency for a significant part of its population? If the city was systematically converting its supply of vacant land-and training people to grow and process their own food-some 22% of Clevelanders would be more self reliant, OSU researcher Parwinder Grewal, who studied Cleveland's vacant land supply with an eye toward local economic development, tells the Columbus Dispatch.

One of three key follow-on points is mentioned in the article-food processing (such as canning and jarring) is needed to make self-sufficiency a reality. An example of small scale processing can be found with non-profit developers Ohio City, Inc. and the local food advocates who organized at the city's '2019' sustainability summit-they are still looking into a start-up incubator kitchen (modeled on Athens, OH kitchen/small biz incubator ACE-Net) that would serve as a prep space for the food produced at the nearby 6-acre Ohio City Farm (pictured right-located on public housing open space). It would be a symbolic step forward.

Perhaps more important to food processing are home-based businesses. The city of Cleveland is following suit with a number of cities liberalizing its zoning restrictions on producing and selling goods in residential districts-this simple idea has great potential to transform local food as an economic driver.

Another missing ingredient is farmers. OSU Extension market garden training program, Botanical Garden's Green Corps., Countryside Conservancy's farming in the valley and Lorain County's Community College's new sustainable agriculture courses are all working to build the urban farming profession. How long at their current capacity will it take to find and train enough farmers to move the dial to, say, 10% self-sufficiency (it will take hundreds if not thousands of Clevelanders to become farmers in order to reconstitute 1,700 acres of vacant property into food growing-are the programs mentioned above going to get us there in our lifetime)? Imagine the mobilization of work force it would take to fulfill this goal.

Sometimes, the task feels insurmountable, but that's why last year, the ReImagine Cleveland initiative started drilling down into what sort of systems would be needed if we all started buying 25% of our food from local sources.

"It's within reach of the type of shifts around local food we're already seeing," says Gary Paul Nabhan from the George Jones Farm in Oberlin. Today, 1 in 15 farmers in America are experimenting with 'direct marketing'-selling at farmer's markets, to restaurants or CSAs.

"So, to imagine a corn and soybean farmer bringing cucumbers and melons to a farmer's market may seem outlandish, but it's already happening for thousands of (Ohio) farmers," Nabhan says in the video, "25% Shift – How Realistic?"

This mental shift, driven by a realization that farmers make higher margins with specialty crops, has only happened within the last decade. It goes hand in hand with skyrocketing demand for local food among us, the eaters. The shift happened because farmer's started seeing the explosion of farmer's markets and restaurants putting local food on the menu and "refused to be passive victims of the food delivery system," Nabhan concludes.

The final ingredient is to bring that desire to eat fresh fruits and veggies to scale – this may be the most important and yet elusive. It requires a cultural shift, the hardest kind you might imagine (you can't easily create a program that addresses it). We have to ask, are the old approaches, such as farm-to-plate programs, cooking demonstrations and nutrition programs in schools-ever going to make the headway needed for a significant shift? Outside of getting Jamie Oliver to town, where can Cleveland look for innovations in promoting healthier eating?

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