The Center for Food Innovation at Oberlin’s stated goals center food systems at large. They highlight how innovative agricultural and food systems-oriented changes can overwhelmingly shift our region. As we invest in new, innovative options, our food systems can become far more localized. Localized food systems will provide a much needed economic boost for the region. They will create jobs and generate revenue for small businesses. They will save carbon emissions and capital if far more of our produce does not require thousands of miles worth of transportation.
A shift towards indoor farming has the potential to reduce algal blooms in the Great Lakes as nutrient rich run-off is largely a product of over-fertilized fields. Year round farming and other similar innovations have the potential to propel our region into one that is economically strong and uniquely prepared for the climate crisis, but smaller scale agricultural innovations also have the potential to be used for far more than profit. Two organizations in the region have their sights set on social issues for which food innovation may be part of the solution.
“I put pen to paper and jotted down the initial idea for OD Greens in 2013” Don Tobul’s handsome grin freezes on the spottily connected Zoom call but his voice comes through clear. “It stewed around and it mutated and it changed forms, but in December of 2018, I bought the farm and got to work.”
Tobul describes OD Greens as a culmination of his life’s work. An indoor, hydroponic farm grows greens which are sold to generate funds for counseling and occupational rehabilitation for military Veterans. Tobul enlisted during college while getting a degree in education and was a member of the Ohio National Guard when he entered the workforce as a science teacher. After 9/11, he was inspired to deploy in Iraq. He served in active duty for a little over a year and frequently found himself taking care of his fellow troops and discussing their mental health with them. Back in the States, inspired by the abundant mental health issues he had seen while serving, Tobul earned a Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from John Carrol University. He had seen the trauma endured by the troops first hand and was committed to the effort of rehabilitation.
Tobul got a job at the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs and kept it for eight years. He spent that time helping Veterans ground themselves in civilian life, offering them mental health counseling and occupational counseling to help get them on their feet back in the States. By the time he left the VA, just at the onset of COVID, OD Greens’ first phase was well underway. Tobul purchased a 40’ container, which in its 320 square feet, housed the growing capacity of two whole acres of farmland.
Setting up the vertical farm was a heavy investment. While indoor farms can be far more efficient than even the most arable land they can require extensive amounts of equipment to set-up. For a period of time, a solid portion of Tobul’s salary went just into saving for the down payment. But three years later, the investment is paying off.
“I sell everything that I grow every week, and I’m not saying that to boast.” A quick smile creeps across his face. “I’m saying that there’s a huge demand for this out there.” And of course since the indoor vertical farm can operate year round, OD Greens sells its whole yield even in the winter months. Their greens are sold in farmers markets and other community spaces like gymnasiums. Tobul says one major success for the farm has been setting up coolers in these community spaces with online payment information attached. People take their greens, and he trusts that this honor system works. The revenue the farm generates helps cover costs of counseling and occupational help. While the Center for Food Innovation is primarily focused on the ways food innovation help food systems and economies, it’s incredibly beneficial to have allies in other sectors using the same technologies for other means.
Tobul also has plans for expansion. He’s hoping to help consult other people on indoor farming. He’s seen how productive and potentially lucrative his model for farming greens can be and the positive social change it can generate. And should someone set up another 40’ container right next to his? “I would welcome it,” Tobul smiles, “I thrive on competition.”
Ismail Samad, an East Cleveland native, is not joking when he tells me it’s, “a wasteland of capitalism.” He continues, “You’ve got a city that’s three square miles, and a third of it is parks. Rockefeller donated this land specifically for the purpose of having green spaces. These parks were hailed until it became a black community and the tax base wasn’t there anymore. The city’s budget is a third of what it should be. Clearly something isn’t working.”
His organization Loiter is focused on building community and wealth in East Cleveland, an area Samad knows has potential to rebuild. The community is predominantly Black, with high incarceration and unemployment rates, and a shrinking economy. It’s both socially and geographically cut off from the rest of the city. Its median income is just over $16,000.
Loiter’s goals are broad, but it has some incredible, unique plans to create wealth and build community simultaneously. Their intended action steps span from building sanctuary homes to starting a tennis league, but the overall goal is to revitalize the community by reviving the economy. Samad has identified that in order to produce social justice in the region, there needs to be capital in circulation. He thinks that there must be some variety of, “non- extractive capitalism,” where East Cleveland’s economy will be productive and most of the capital will stay within the community rather than make its way to affluent outsiders looking to turn a profit in a largely low-income community.
One key strategy of Loiter’s is a land bank cooperative. The concept is that East Cleveland residents will buy small plots of land, give the co-op access, and then reap the rewards of the food grown there. This, according to Samad, is about more than just access to locally grown produce. “It’s about reclaiming the land. […] Land coops are our attempt to work within the system. If there’s already a precedent for investors to gobble up this land, let’s buy it ourselves.” Through owning the relatively affordable land, and reaping the benefits of the food grown there, Loiter hopes that residents will establish a renewed sense of place in East Cleveland. Samad speaks to how access to locally grown food can serve as a form of healing for Black people in the area.
He understands institutionalized poverty and racism are in and of themselves forms of trauma which can be healed through access to community and a reunification with the land. “Reparations need to come in the form of emotional restitution. We need to invest in repairing communities.” Much like Tobul’s OD Greens, it’s important to understand that Loiter is not in this business to grow food. They simply understand that doing so is part of the solution to another set of problems.
Agri-food systems in North East Ohio and around the globe are on the verge of a period of revolution. As we prepare for a climate crisis that threatens our very existence, the way that humankind eats must change. The beautiful aspect of these changes is that they can serve to generate more than just revenue. When our local economies thrive, when racial and environmental justice align with economic justice for the working and middle classes, when everyone has access to healthy, locally grown food, we have the opportunity to build towards justice for all.
Check out Ismail Samad at loiter.us and Don Tobul at odgreens.com, and of course for more information on the CFIO, visit our resource page.