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Local food highlights from the 2011 Sustainability Summit

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/28/11 @ 2:53pm

Northeast Ohio's annual food bill is $11 billion, and the economic consequences, not to mention nutritional benefits, of eating fresh, locally grown food are staggering. That's why Sustainable Cleveland 2019 is trying to dramatically increase the percentage of locally produced food in restaurants, schools and consumer shopping carts.

-From Cleveland.com's coverage of the 2011 Sustainable Cleveland Summit 

Hundreds gathered at Public Hall for the city of Cleveland's third annual Sustainable Cleveland 2019 summit last week ? with an agenda that included a recap of the 2010 Year of Energy Efficiency and getting the ball rolling on the 2012 Year of Local Food.

At last year's SC2019 summit, "Year of Celebration" frameworks were adopted; they serve more as guideposts than hard targets (in keeping with the Appreciative Inquiry method employed by the Office of Sustainability and Case Fowler Center for Sustainable Value. AI asks the gathering to dream about their local food aspirations; AI isn't a strategic planning exercise). Much about what's growing in the grassroots around local food was discussed and celebrated.

SC2019 hopes to raise more of what local food leaders like Dan Nolan of Cleveland Crops and Tim Smith of Community Greenhouse Partners bring to the table, and that their entrepreneurial zeal gets baked into the Cleveland culture.

Cleveland Crops has trained and hired through the Cuyahoga County Department of Development Disabilities 25 urban farmers to work three ventures at reclaimed vacant properties-the Ohio City Farm, Stanard Farm (in Hough) and their latest, the 1.2 acre Heritage Farm at E. 105th Street just south of Superior (Nolan points out that they are one of the last partners in to the Ohio City Farm, which was initially launched with Great Lakes Brewing and immigrant farmers through Refugee Response).

Cleveland Crops, thanks to its marketing consultant, Myra Ornstein (who worked on the Cleveland Independents campaign), connected with Zack Bruell, chef/owner of L'Albatross and Chinato, who agreed to buy tomatoes and greens for his restaurants.

What will help convince Clevelanders to want more local food?

"Just taste it," Nolan says. "You'll keep your neighbors in business."

Next up for Cleveland Crops: starting an urban farm in the suburbs. "We have a property at Mayfield and Green in South Euclid that University Hospital is leasing us." The discussion has started for UH to buy produce from an urban farm. This is surely a significant step for local food.

Baking 'sustainability' into the culture was the topic of a local food table conversation on day one. Farai, a volunteer at Mound Elementary School in Slavic Village, noted how the school is taking up topics like composting, gardening, robotics and recycling.

"These kids have sometimes never seen anything grow," he said. "We are trying to connect to local farmers and explain that farmers use waste to make compost that helps food grow. They are as much a part of the environment as part of their family. And they can make careers out of it."

Ruth, a nun with Sisters of St. Joseph, said the younger generation will teach their parents about local food, just like the kids during the 1970s "taught" parents to wear seat belts.

"Kids will transform the world. We need more intergeneration communities. A local example is the Benjamin Rose Institute which works on creative aging."

Baby Boomers could learn a thing or two from the students of Cleveland Early High School who started a market garden on Stokes between Carnegie and Chester this year. With the help of OSU Extension and Summer Sprout, these John Hay students are trying to figure out how local food makes (dollars) and sense.

"We would like to see gardens on all of the rooftops at the schools in Cleveland," one of the students said during a presentation session.

It's that kind of vision that CMSD needs to sow into all of its students, and with the garden project it has a pathway into these young minds.

"Growhio" is an early local food success-the idea for a local food marketing campaign hatched at the 2009 SC2019 summit. The group won a $20,000 grant from Ohio Department of Agriculture to promote local food last year. It produced a Local Food Guide that provides information on where city folk can shop-at farmer's markets, urban farm stands, Community Supported Agriculture-and what's in season week-by-week. Next up, says group leader Gwen Forte, is a list of restaurants serving local food (this information and more can be found at growhio.org and on the great social network localfoodcleveland.org).

Day two of the Summit kicked off with a local food panel discussion. The take away? Local food leaders are risk takers whose vision for bridging the local food gap isn't shying away from tough topics.

"The way you solve food desserts is to bring food to the people," said Mansfield Frasier of Chateau Hough. "I've heard about food trucks that deliver food from farms directly to neighborhood corner stores. People say they want food brought to their door, especially the elderly."

How do we extend the growing season? asked Carlton Jackson of Tunnel Vision Hoops (a SC2019 idea that hatched into a small business making giant hoop houses in Cleveland). "We're working with a New Zealand company on a biodigester" he said to let them work year round-with heated hoop houses, "but to do it economically."

"In sum," said OSU Extension's Morgan Taggart, "how do we support local business, new entrepreneurs who want to be part of local food economy? How do we rebuild our local distribution system? How do make sure social justice and community development are open for everyone?"

Woody Tasch, founder of Slow Money, the national funder network for hyper local businesses, thinks he's struck on some of the answers. While he admits that the network's $9 million invested in small food business this year is a drop in the bucket, it's an important step away from "giving people we don't know money to invest in places where they don't live and don't understand."

"I've heard you say you want to turn the (North Union) food hub downtown into a local food hub," Tasch said to the Summit, tapping into a point made about bolstering local food distribution. "Where's the money going to come from? At some point, it's going to have to come from having catalyzed millions of Americans-and you who want to see it happen."

Even investing 1% of your personal investment dollars in local business can start a shift toward the Cleveland community's big hairy audacious goal of 25% local food. This is a way of "confronting the real problems; not shying away or be paralyzed by fear." (A great local example of taking control of your philanthropic dollars can be seen with the Cleveland Colectivo and other giving circles).

Slow Money helps networks of local investors form, and has directed their seed capital investment into businesses like Butterworks Farm, Let's Be Frank (all grass fed organic hot dogs), Sky Vegetables (inner city rooftop gardens growing for-sale produce), Organic Valley (1,500 organic dairy farmers) and Judy Wicks who founded White Dog Caf in Philly and grew it into a $5 million company over 25 years, in the process supporting a network of local organic farms.

"Her goal was to grow a more beautiful company. If you eat you are an investor. We're used to thinking about our eating dollars not as financial dollars. It has to come from a number of individuals who want to see things like this grow."

How do we get involved? Tasch was asked.

Sign the Smart Money principles. No money has to change hands. Join the Slow Money Alliance (2,000 people have contributed millions to the Slow Money investing network). "We're inventing this as we go. 'Chapters' are a bunch of volunteers. Next level up you could form an investing club like the Small Potatoes Club. And lastly you could come to a national gathering of 800 people in San Fran."

Next up: A recap of the Year of Energy Efficiency discussion at the 2011 Summit.

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