Autumn foliage signals the end of the growing season across the rust belt states as farmers wind down for the winter chill.
Yet in Cleveland’s bleak “forgotten triangle”, bountiful crops of rainbow chard, collard greens and plump purple aubergines are blooming at one of the city’s urban farms.
In a heavily segregated city where race and inequality can define one’s life outcome, not to mention the obstacles of food deserts and urban decay, now there is an arable green oasis.
The farm, created by the not-for-profit Rid-All partnership, is striving to change eating habits in a city where health inequalities disproportionately affect African American communities.
Its African American creators have transformed a desolate illegal dumping ground into a lush, eight-acre agricultural innovation site with greenhouses, fish ponds and a composting facility.
Rid-All is among 25 inspirational people and organizations changing lives and communities that the Guardian is this week highlighting as part of the Cleveland’s City Champions project.
Each case exemplifies how grassroots activists and socially minded entrepreneurs are tackling big, interconnected global challenges such as the climate crisis, obesity and infant mortality at the local level, often in the absence of state-sponsored structural solutions.
“People of colour are constantly under attack, and not just by guns and the police, by all sorts of structural violence like corruption, food deserts, educational and health inequalities,” said Amanda King, founder of Shooting without Bullets, an arts and social justice organization in Cleveland.
Rid-All’s ethos is community building through education and experience: over the past decade, hundreds of Clevelanders – mostly African American men – have completed its urban farming training programmes, including most recently a group of veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Aided by an army of volunteer sustainability converts, the farm has become a community hub, hosting vegetarian food festivals, weddings, cooking classes, school visits and guided tours.
“The idea was to show people how to turn vacant urban plots into green spaces that generate community pride and economic opportunities,” said co-founder Randy McShepard.
“Diabetes, heart disease and obesity are killing us, yet these diseases can all be mitigated by healthy diets, which is what we’re trying to teach our communities.”
The scale of the challenge in Cleveland can be daunting. The city is the capital of Cuyahoga county, located on the southern shore of Lake Erie, a former powerhouse which has suffered decades of economic decline and widespread racial inequalities:
- African Americans make up 30% of the county’s population, but are 79% more likely to die from diabetes than their white counterparts.
- Almost 54% of children in Cleveland live in poverty – the second-highest rate in the country after Detroit, but African Americans and Latinos are three times more affected than whites.
- Countywide, one in three, or 400,000 people, live in a food desert – a neighbourhood with high rates of poverty and no supermarket within half a mile. This dire situation is even worse in predominantly black neighbourhoods like East Cleveland, Hough and Glenville, where more than half the people rely on gas stations, minimarts and fast-food outlets to eat.
- Not a single Cuyahoga County supermarket (a food store bigger than 10,000ft) is owned by an African American.
It is within this context of deep-seated economic and racial injustice that Rid-All was founded in 2009 by three school friends who grew up on the same street, in a suburb African Americans were only able to move to after racist home ownership zoning policies, known as redlining, were relaxed in the 1960s.
Rid-All began as the global financial crisis was taking hold of the city, fuelling a rise in unemployment and foreclosures. They acquired 1.3 acres of abandoned land, obtained council permits, cleaned it up and opened the first greenhouse in early 2010.
“Food is the longest relationship you will ever have, and we’re trying to help people make it a good one,” said Keymah Durden III, another co-founder (the third founder, Damien Forshe, died suddenly last year).
But this is about more than healthy eating: the core team, all African American men in their 50s, are socially-minded entrepreneurs with their fingers in many green pies, striving to inspire and teach community members to grow small businesses. They were all members of Alpha Phi Alpha – the first African American college fraternity, which emphasises community service, leadership and tackling injustice. One recent urban farming graduate has launched an organic skincare line using herbs grown at the farm, another a hot sauce company.
Rid-All is expanding and has spawned numerous not-for-profit and business spinoffs, including a commercial fish farm, vegan catering, puppet and theatre shows, comics and beekeeping, with a vegetarian restaurant and juice business in the works.
Invest small, inspire big
On a chilly grey October morning, Valerie Harrison, a retired teacher and community organizer, is out mowing the grass and inspecting the season’s final harvest at the Bedford Heights community garden.
This was an unused grassy plot in 2010, which Harrison, 60, persuaded the mayor of Bedford Heights, a predominantly black mixed-income suburb, to sanction as a community garden. Now, there are 20 raised plots where cub scouts, widows and adults with learning difficulties grow a variety of crops including strawberries, tomatoes, kale and okra; 10% of the produce is donated to the community centre and local residents.
Harrison recently completed Rid-All’s five-month farming course on a scholarship, after promising to impart the knowledge to other gardeners. She recently secured funds to double the number of plots for next season, a joint venture with a local public middle school.
This is exactly the multiplier effect that Rid-All want to generate: invest small, inspire big.
Rust Belt Riders
Despite the shocking number of Americans facing hunger, as much as half of all food is wasted. The majority ends up in landfills, making it one of the largest contributors to the greenhouse gas emissions driving the global climate crisis.
In Cleveland, like much of the US, there is no municipal composting service. Working closely with Rid-All is a local food waste collection company, Rust Belt Riders, which started out in 2014 as two guys on their bikes collecting and composting food waste from a handful of restaurants to avoid it ending up in landfills.
Rust Belt Riders, another of the City Champions, is a small but growing business, collecting 50,000lb of food waste every week from 150 businesses (schools, restaurants, grocery stores, museums), and recently started a residential service which costs $10 for weekly collection, or $5 to drop off your food waste. The Riders are committed to keeping costs down, but acknowledge that composting, like healthy eating, is unaffordable for many.
Recent recruit Zoe Apisdorf, 29, is on a collection route in Shaker Heights, an ethnically mixed wealthy suburb scattered with grandiose mansions, not far from the county’s poorest neighbourhoods.
“The food waste issue is a food inequalities issue which is really painful to me. Part of the paradigm shift is getting people to see that throwing out food – and plastic – with trash isn’t normal,” said Apisdorf.
Apisdorf drops off the waste to Rid-All, which will be turned into compost, and sold to commercial farmers cultivating corn, hemp, and soya, as well as community gardens, local residents, and marijuana growers – a burgeoning industry in Ohio.
“We waste so much in the United States, we have to change our way of life and the climate and global food crisis means our regenerative agriculture model is the way of the future,” said Marc White, 55, Rid-All’s sharply dressed chief farmer, compost guru and holistic health columnist. “Our soil is the secret sauce for nutrition … it is black gold.”