Opening up: Notes from the Northeast Ohio Food Congress

When I hear or read comments that dismiss local foods as something only folks in California can do, I'm puzzled. Everywhere I go in northeast Ohio, I see farms and markets that have locally grown and produced foods for sale. So I have to wonder: is no one paying attention to us here in the heartland, or are we just not making it clear how much local food we have available?

That may be about to change.

Since I found out about the Ohio Food Policy Advisory Council at the Farmland Preservation Summit last month, I've been eager to find out more about the Council's recommendations for marketing local foods and for improving access to local foods in disadvantaged communities, among other things. That in turn caused my anticipation of the Northeast Ohio Food Congress, billed as "Promoting a healthy, equitable, and sustainable food system in Northeast Ohio" and held November 7 and 8 at Hiram College, to grow.

The Congress promised delegates from this quadrant of the state the chance to come together, to discuss their most pressing issues surrounding local foods, and to generate possible courses of action to take home to county organizations to implement. Such an open agenda could have devolved into chaos or lethargy, but the organizers presented a good plan to get people talking, and the delegates themselves raised the energy level of the entire conference with their passion for local food activism.

The entire Congress offered a feast of possibilities, and there were plenty of ideas left over to take home and share.

Sound bites

Friday's schedule began with several site visits to examine local projects, including City Fresh, a program to involve urban youth in farming; Crown Point Ecology Center, an organic farm and educational site; and the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy, an advocacy group that helps preserve farmland and rebuild local food systems in the area. Delegates reconvened at the student center at Hiram College in the late afternoon to register, gather information about local projects, and peruse the posters produced by students in Hiram's Humans and the Environment class (covering topics from organic production to monoculture, ethanol, and genetic engineering).

Following an excellent dinner featuring local farm produce, locally produced pumpkin ravioli, and locally raised chicken — and a selection of local wines! — we crossed the street to hear the evening's keynote speaker, Wayne Roberts of the Toronto Food Policy Council. He talked about the council's work and how it related not only to public health but to the "whole enchilada" of community activities. He described several key qualities of food and encouraged the audience to see where those qualities could lead policy-making.  For example:

  • Food is essential. So examine a city's budget to see where food-related expenditures exist (transportation for food delivery and shopping, garbage collection including food scraps) and where possible changes can be made (encourage local foods, composting).
  • Food offers room for continuous improvement. If food is "meant to be eaten in bite-sized pieces," then our small steps to make improvements in our food systems (getting local institutions to commit to 10% local food purchases one year, and 5% more each subsequent year, can add up to significant changes.
  • Food can encourage emotional bonding. Not only does it give us a chance to bond with our families, but it could let us bridge divides between communities.
  • Food is inextricably bound up with labor. If the food sector is the "biggest employer in the service economy," focusing on local food can keep more jobs at home since "local food is very hard to outsource."

When asked how to persuade policymakers of the benefits of local foods, Roberts replied that beyond basic economic analysis, we need to make the connection to food personal, by taking policymakers on tours and getting them to understand the relevance to their own lives.

Coming to the table

Saturday began with another keynote speaker, this time featuring David Kline (who I heard speak last month at the Farmland Preservation Summit). Kline struck many of the same notes as he spoke of the need to support local farms and to make farming both profitable and enjoyable in order to draw in a new generation of farmers. "Quality of life begins at the table," he declared, and so more than ever, we need good food that comes from healthy soil worked by intelligent farmers. Though many who are unfamiliar with Amish communities see them as rejecting all technology, Kline made it clear that his fellow Amish farmers do value and rely on scientific information to resolve problems and improve their farming — just not "at the cost of local wisdom and knowledge."

His words led neatly into the initial panel discussion that introduced our work for the day. Amalie Lipstreu of the Ohio Department of Agriculture explained the mission of the Ohio Food Policy Advisory Council but stressed that Council members were in attendance at the Congress to "listen to you." In order to find out local concerns and ideas, the organizers used open-space facilitation techniques: delegates set their own topics of discussion and chose what areas they wanted to share or gather information. As delegates described their chosen topics, organizers arranged the day's schedule and guided attendees to various spaces for continued discussion.

Farm trek: The next generation

One of the most stimulating discussions of the day centered on the broad-ranging topic of encouraging and supporting the next generation of farmers, be they urban youth, college students, or young families. The common themes for each of these demographics included questions about how to get land on which to farm and how to build the knowledge needed for farming. Several urban delegates related how they acquired land in the city for gardening or urban farming — whether through land trusts of undeveloped lots, getting agreements from owners of neighboring vacant lots, or working out mutual agreements with neighbors for using back yards to expand gardens — and a couple of rural farmers talked briefly about the difficulty of buying land for larger-scale farming. One delegate encouraged the young hopefuls to "get used to seeing the resources right underneath your feet" and to think creatively about matching needs and resources.

As part of this discussion, youth involved with the City Fresh program in Cleveland and neighboring Lorain and Elyria spoke about their work in creating urban farms and CSA programs that served disadvantaged communities. Some of the young adults in the group explained that they had started working with the program simply because it was something to do when no other extracurricular activities were available, but the novelty of the program quickly encouraged them to bring friends along for theexperience.  Their appreciation of the program ranged from comments on the "fun" to pride in seeing concrete results of their work, and they spoke eloquently about the positive changes to their communities and to their own willingness to try new things. They lavished particular praise on their program director, Maurice Small. One young woman paid tribute to him by testifying to the success of the project and declaring, "We love you... you know we got your back."

Yes, we can (and garden, too)

The other two sessions I attended featured a similar focus on community involvement. The first session following lunch (and more local foods) centered on community food-processing centers, whether for farmers to have local processing of their produce for retail, or for community members to process foods for home use.

Facilitator Leslie Schaller of ACEnet, the Appalachian Center of Economic Networks in southeastern Ohio, expressed her own passion for collaborative efforts between farm and food consumers. Existing regulations at the state and local level make it difficult for farmers to process their own produce for sale, whether as jams, jellies, pickles, or something more complex, even when they have the equipment and facilities.  Some communities are looking into the possibility of creating commercial-quality processing facilities to assist local producers. In both cases, the obstacles often seem overwhelming, and delegates expressed interest in finding ways to cut through the legal wrangling in order to work together. Schaller emphasized that "this is a central piece in food relocalization," and that this discussion should only be the beginning of information gathering and cooperative efforts back at the county level.

After that, I joined a group discussing community gardens (and Victory Gardens!) and — once again — the need to draw upon existing knowledge to make these efforts successful. A couple of delegates who have worked to establish community gardens indicated that the most successful efforts come from those communities that directly express a need, not from those who have gardens established for them. Though it may seem useful to create such garden spaces to help disadvantaged communities, the people in those communities may not have the time or skills to maintain the gardens, and thus the projects can fail. And if there is any question about the permanency of the garden, the community won't invest in it.

Still, these delegates noted, if a community garden is established through the impetus of the neighborhood in order to build up their community or even to clean up empty or abandoned space, the pride they invest in the project will lead to greater success. As one person acknowledged, "If anything good can be said about the economic times now," it's that people are less likely to develop empty lots and more likely to allow them  to be used for shared community spaces like gardens.

Do the local motion

Delegates had the chance to rest briefly as they listened to a panel discussion of current local food systems projects. Leah Miller of the Wayne County Agriculture Success Team described how the failure of a farmland preservation ballot issue provided the impetus to study how business and agriculture in Wayne County need to work together, how to involve new people in farming, and how to make agriculture sustainable. She stressed the importance of reaching out to others beyond the obvious scope of the project in order to get broader input and community participation.

Casey Hoy, professor in the Agroecosystems Management Program at OSU's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, spoke about the Ohio Local Food Systems Collaborative that grew out of last year's Stinner Summit on sustainable agriculture and has continued to prosper through a social networking website that allows team members to communicate more effectively. He indicated that while no one may be in charge of the whole collaborative, it offers a working democracy for its members to share their knowledge, ideas, and plans.

Maurice Small from City Fresh told a moving tale about his money-poor but ethnically diverse and culturally rich neighborhood in Cleveland being the testing ground for this program involving urban youth. In an area bereft of grocery stores, he said, people's access to fresh food is usually limited to produce that is old and nutritionally deficient.  With a grant from the USDA, City Fresh has been able to connect young people to the land through their urban farms and to their communities, as neighbors come to pick up their fresh produce weekly. He emphasized the importance of education — both in teaching the new farmers and in promoting the fresh food — and though the group's grant ran out in 2006, local foundations continue to support their work, and they have been able to expand into other neighborhoods.

Jennifer Scofield, a member of the Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition, described the coalition's work in combining food policy with program development. Faced with increasing statistics in hunger, poverty, and crime along with decreasing access to nutritious food, members of various agencies came together to find ways to turn those numbers around and to build healthy, secure communities.

By the end of the day, delegates had the chance to meet with others from their home counties to discuss what they had learned from the various sessions and to set a course of action for food policy initiatives back at home. I joined my fellow Wayne County neighbors, and while we have many resources at hand (including the aforementioned Wayne Ag Success Team, the OARDC, and the neighboring Amish community), we still found possible areas in which to get more people involved in expanding our local food system.

From what I saw, most delegates left looking a little worn but still hopeful, physically exhausted from the intensity of focus needed for the weekend's activities, but ready to go home and open new pathways for local food to grow. Time will tell whether or not we make a big difference, but considering all the ideas and deep enthusiasm I encountered this weekend, I believe that you'll be hearing great things from Ohio soon.

One Responseto “Opening up: Notes from the Northeast Ohio Food Congress”

  1. Chris Norman says:

    Thank you Jennifer for this terrific account of the 2008 Food Congress. For the first time holding such an event, we were very happy with the results.  It was a true collaborative effort, all of us working in the odd hours or spaces in addition to our regular jobs.  While we are still pulling the evaluations together, it seems to have been very useful for attendees.  The intent is to have an event where policy makers can be informed, learn about innovation in our region and beyond, hear from a cross section of stakeholders from the local food system, and be empowered to take local action to promote the equitable food system our region and neighborhoods need so badly.
    We will now make efforts to foster that conversation and action at the local level.  I would like to water the seeds of action noted by the local groups.  That may be by using an area expert visit, publicized local meeting times, research support or whatever the group thinks would be helpful.  The conversation and collaboration must continue if we are to seize this moment to make healthy food choices available to underserved communities, and energize local growers with a profitable relationship to area markets.

    Thanks again for joining us and for this terrific blog!