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Let’s Get Together Now

What was a Friday lunch with the Director of City Fresh, Nick Swetye, rolled over into a Farm Bill roundtable with Ohio Senator, Sherrod Brown.That’s pretty much how it happened…Nick had a 2pm engagement and asked if i would be interested in attending. It took me all of a split second to respond, “Yes!”

Senator Brown was fresh off the plane from Washington D.C. and President Obama’s job speech the night before. In preparation for the 2012 Farm Bill, the Senator was here to get a better understanding of the food climate in NE Ohio. He wanted to hear first hand from his constituents what they wanted in a farm bill. Brown’s office had gathered a diverse group of area representatives including institutional food buyers, area grocers, farmers’ market coordinators, university ag extensions, growing co-ops and food policy coordinators. The Senator opened the conversation with, “I want to make a Farm Bill that works.” He went on to explain that it is not just a bill for farms but a bill for “nutrition, health, food, energy and environment.”


Everyone had gone around the table giving the Senator their 1-2-3 pitch when he threw a curve ball, “why aren’t there more African-Americans at this table?” He was right! Black residents represent the majority in Cleveland and many of its area suburbs. And one of Cleveland’s biggest concerns is addressing access to healthy, quality food in the inner city. The picture above captures the moment when Senator Brown (middle, blue shirt) set the stage for farmer, Eric Hooper who was seated to his right (orange shirt). Up till know, the comments carried the usual, but accurate, food rhetoric, i.e. redesign the subsidy program, repurpose urban areas for farming, jobs, etc. Eric immediately gained the room’s attention with his straight talk, “hire people within the system to build the system.” Mr. Hooper was loaded with all kinds of great ideas like a Peace Corps type initiative that trained urban farm programs. He held the floor for about five minutes leaving a powerful energy floating in the room. He used the word, “tenacity,” a few times to drive his point. I liked that! Here is a picture of Eric admiring the community garden outside the facility. You gotta love it…raised, straw-bale beds placed directly on the blacktop. Just another example that you can grow food anywhere. You just need “tenacity!”

The location of the roundtable could not have been more appropriate….the newly acquired home of Communty Greenhouse Partners (CGP). It’s the building and grounds of an old church on Cleveland’s east side. About three years ago, the Cleveland diocese closed 40 Catholic churches. St. George’s Lithuanian Church was one of them. It fell quickly into disrepair. But under new ownership there are huge plans for this 67,000 sq.ft. space including a commercial kitchen on the first floor, food co-op on the second and a community center on the third where the church parish congregated. CGP’s ultimate dream is to become Cleveland’s first food hub aggregating locally produced food and distributing it out into the community. Ideally, food suppliers would be a myriad of area farms, urban gardens as well as a place for backyard gardens to sell their produce and create a small business for themselves. The master plan (pictured below) shows the main building and surrounding grow areas with greenhouses, orchards and raised-garden beds. The project is the vision of Timothy Smith. Timothy was transformed by one of the very food films, FRESH, that encouraged me to purse a career in sustainable food systems. I’m very impressed with what he has been able to accomplish in just two years. I hope to be as successful. One of his staff members stood up during the meeting with a strong reminder, “Sustainability projects need one-time catalyst money to get off the ground but then they are true to their word and are, as the name implies, sustainable!”

After the meeting adjourned, I asked the Senator’s staff how they would glean key items for inclusion in Mr. Brown’s Senate speech. I got a wishy-washy, political answer but I’m confident that the Senator had a few, solid take-away items which resonated with everyone’s comment…small and mid-scale farms can not compete on price and volume in the traditional food model. But a regional food hub could aggregate local food so it could compete. The last to speak was City Fresh’s own, Nick Swetye. He summed it up for the Senator in two simple bullets, 1) create food hubs and 2) generate consumer interest and demand.