At the Center for Food Innovation at Oberlin, we and our stakeholders gain tremendous benefit collaborating with our region’s diverse private and public institutions. With a content team made up of Lorain County Community College and Oberlin College grads, along with a network of partners at the Ohio State University Extension program, we’ve seen first-hand how these institutions’ sustainability curricula, resource programs, infrastructural commitments, and more impact their greater regions. As we work towards our goal of establishing an advanced regional agricultural cluster in Northeast Ohio, these schools help us achieve our mission of network building and support for innovation.
America’s higher education institutions hold a unique role in addressing the climate crisis. On one hand, as key centers for research, innovation, and communication, these institutions harness immense potential to develop and promote sustainable solutions to environmental issues. On the other hand, they possess just as much potential to heavily contribute to carbon emissions, waste, and other forms of environmental degradation. Second Nature, an NGO committed to accelerating climate action in, and through, higher education, digs into academia’s one-of-a-kind placement in our societal fabric to help these institutions develop sustainability-focused strategies for campus operations that emphasize community development, ecosystem restoration, and local climate resilience.
Alexander Maxwell, a former Second Nature Climate Programs Senior Manager, previously emphasized that each higher education institution has a significant role to play in the health and development of their larger community. Second Nature has developed a variety of initiatives catered towards institutions’ different abilities to follow through on realistic climate action plans. The Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitment is one opportunity for schools to determine their own unique goals and actions using an implementation handbook which serves as a framework to propel campus sustainability efforts. They also provide a Reporting Platform which tracks institutions’ first, second and third scope emissions to hold signatories accountable to their commitments. Further, Second Nature’s University Climate Change Coalition (UC3) is a subset of large research institutions who aim to partner with local businesses, foundations, governments, and organizations to promote cross-sector climate resilience. UC3 members come from different universities and work together to implement innovative strategies and further their own ambitious campus climate goals.
One of Second Nature’s particularly innovative and relatively new programs is the Acceleration Fund. The project sets aside small grants for a handful of colleges and universities within the Second Nature network, to jump start cross-sector and cross-community climate action work. identifies unique projects that cultivate campus-community partnerships and address climate solutions that affect both institutional and external stakeholders. Recently funded projects include Wentworth Institute of Technology’s establishment of an ongoing community forum for microgrid development, the Institute of American Indian Arts’ creation of a free podcast resource on water-saving and solar solutions for the local community, and Bard College’s development of a refrigerant management system to locally tackle environmental contamination and destruction. Through grant term report requirements, Second Nature keeps track of the implementation of each project to ensure that all institutions are set up for success.
Considering our organizational goal to establish a regional agricultural cluster in Lorain County, we at CFIO see the potential in Second Nature’s work to bolster community development and mobilization. Performing the proposed 25% shift towards local food production in northeast Ohio will require adequate workforce training, capital accumulation, job creation, land security, and consumer education, all factors which the coalition of local institutions has the resources to implement. With such power over the region’s economies, food markets, and long-term sustainability plans, northeast Ohio’s higher education institutions have a responsibility to amplify their ambition around climate activity so they can best use their positioning to support local needs.
In recent years, a movement for “buying local” has resurfaced in the food industry. Farmers markets and farm-to-table restaurants, for instance, have often been heralded as ideal choices over massive supermarkets and chain restaurants, suggesting positive outcomes with local food consumption. Because of this rhetoric, many people have adopted a sense of moral righteousness about participating in locally-rooted aspects of the food system. However, most people are unaware of how keeping their dollars local actually affects the region around them and of the extent to which their participation is necessary.
A call for a return to “local” reveals the current globalized nature of the food system. A new system has developed as a result of the consolidation of agricultural and livestock corporations at the expense of smaller producers, which is reinforced by new, “conventional” methods of production as well as laws aimed at maximizing the profits of these corporations. The globalization of the food system has significantly impacted our relationship to food and local producers. Nowadays, food found in chain grocery stores has more likely than not been transported hundreds of miles and has undergone various levels of processing in order to maintain the freshness that is undermined during transportation. All sorts of produce can be found, regardless of the season, and there is typically little transparency over who produced the food or how it was cultivated.
Globalization has witnessed benefits to producers and consumers, simultaneously lowering consumer prices for certain goods through trade while increasing corporate profits. However, this system is at odds with overall environmental and socioeconomic wellbeing. As reported by the FAO and a large growing body of peer-reviewed agroecological studies, the globalization of a high input, productionist and extractive model of agriculture is rendering our world’s food systems ever more vulnerable to the multiple, converging threats of climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, desertification, nutrient loss, and other exceedances of planetary boundaries. Smaller producers face the burden of these consequences, and yet, they are still coerced into adopting these practices in order to grow certain patented seeds and livestock and participate in the global food economy. They are often unable to compete with larger producers, who produce on “economies of scale,” producing more at a lower price. Nationwide, this has supported trends in the consolidation of large farms, and at the same time, a low farm business survival rate.
While industrial agriculture, or “conventional,” agriculture is championed as the most suitable system to “feed the world,” due to its high yields achieved from high external input use and high intensity practices, it is ultimately not sustainable. The high yields eventually decrease as the growing environment becomes less resilient and nutrient dense, and the conventional food system in general does not sufficiently tackle its many externalities, including soil degradation and water pollution, to name only a few. Despite these effects, farmers are still incentivized by federal subsidies to continue cultivating commodity crops like corn and soybeans on a high scale, even when faced with lower prices.
In fact, this system is quite nonsensical at times when it is examined from anything other than a profit-centered lens. For example, free trade agreements sometimes facilitate the shipment of the same good between two countries, just for a lower price, which creates an unnecessarily high carbon footprint. The United States and Mexico, for instance, despite both being major growers of corn (albeit different kinds), trade large amounts of the crop between each other.
The COVID-19 pandemic has especially exposed the issues with the globalized nature of the food system. This global threat has tested the adaptive capacity of our societal institutions, including those that sustain global supply chains and essential services needed to support basic human needs for much of the world’s population, including the universal human need for consistent, year-round access to nourishing food. Too heavily globalized food supply chains create more risks for local populations in the face of safety and national security issues. Robust local food systems, on the other hand, can circumvent such issues all while also bolstering their communities.
The movement for increasing our consumption of local food is strengthening. Local food has many different definitions; the USDA officially defines it as food transported less than 400 miles, which is quite generous when considering who qualifies as local producers (e.g. farmers markets). However, local food is generally best described as food that has been produced in a short supply chain. Short food supply chains are characterized by little to no intermediaries between producers and consumers. They are known for having more transparency compared to traditional supply chains, where there is often less information regarding labor practices and sourcing. Local food sales can be placed into two broad categories: direct-to-consumer (DTC) and intermediated sales. DTC operations take many forms, including farmers markets, on-farm sales, and community supported agriculture (CSA) schemes, where consumers take share of the farm’s profit. The sale of local food through such operations have become increasingly popular in recent years. Intermediated markets are channels in which food for human consumption is sold to regional institutions and distributors, including food hubs and direct sales to restaurants. Hillcrest Foodservice in Northeast Ohio is an example of this, acting as one of the largest independent distributors in the area. It aims to deliver quality, tasty ingredients to consumers and institutions and to ensure that the traditions of the community can remain in the food system during this process.
Why is local food appealing, though? Local food has many unique values attributed to it, ranging from physical to economic values. Many people cite local food as fresher, having a great taste and quality that chain stores cannot quite match. It often embodies and preserves local traditions and cultures too. Furthermore, local food can entail a stronger, more reflexive relationship between producers and consumers. CSA programs and other measures, like participatory guarantee systems (PGS) that ensure that quality standards determined by both producers and consumers are met. Based on locality and context, these standards can be utilized in order to ensure food system sustainability and other goals, like increased access to nutritious foods, that may not otherwise be met.
Despite the benefits of local food, it is sometimes difficult for DTC and other local operations to reach local and regional populations. Because of this, food hubs are increasingly becoming major players in overcoming this barrier in order to strengthen the local food economy. They empower and assist smaller farmers in scaling up their operations while also maintaining premium prices by connecting them to markets that value their products. Food hubs are a tool to entrench certain values, like environmental friendliness and fair practices, in the food system. Despite their impact, food hubs alone facilitate a shift toward local food if the benefits to consumers and their communities are not realized.
Moreover, local food is often associated with better environmental outcomes, linking short supply chains with less transportation, packaging, and processing as well as better farming practices. However, it is important to acknowledge that just because food is locally produced, it does not mean that it is definitively indicative of better environmental outcomes. The environmental sustainability of local food depends largely on farming practices, and sometimes, the reasons cited for its superiority, like less miles, actually prove the opposite to be true (local farms can transport smaller loads but over the same distance as large, conventional producers, indicating less energy efficiency). That being said, purchasing fresh, locally produced fruits and vegetables through a DTC model can have a lower carbon footprint by bypassing transportation and/or packaging needs. Additionally, DTC operations have been more extensively linked to a decreased use of environmentally degrading chemical fertilizers. Similarly, purchasing livestock from local rearers is linked with more positive environmental impacts, as better practices are more often adopted.
However, like in the case of local livestock, some alternative food operations often have higher prices compared to competing retailers. Part of this is due to the greater demand for local food than what is supplied. Another reason for a higher price is that there are other desirable non-commodity (market) values that are attached to local food, like cultural tradition, morality, and art, to name a few. However, some DTC operations like farmers markets have been cited to generally have lower prices than supermarkets for the quality—all while growers also retain more of the revenue from their sales than in the conventional supply chains. So while local food can sometimes be pricer, for many the premium price is worth it. Plus, with the expansion of the local food movement, prices could start to change as it adapts to this new demand.
In recent years, DTCs have become a competitive aspect of food markets, with e-commerce becoming an increasingly popular choice for grocery-shopping. Not all DTCs are face-to-face or locally-based, though, like in the case of Bear Naked, a Kellogg’s subsidiary. Online meat and seafood retailer Butcher Box, despite being a nationwide operation, maintains some of the values associated with local food by sourcing from farmers who comply with humane practices at a price that reflects it. Its beef is grass-fed, pasture-raised, and antibiotic free, its chickens are free-range, and its fish are wild-caught and sustainably sourced. Notably, they also seek to limit their packaging use by using eco-friendly materials. While Butcher Box is not a local operation, it understands the significance of providing access to meat, poultry, and fish that is produced under conditions different than productivist norms. It also shows that online retailers are capable of stimulating local food supply chains, providing a great reference for desirable characteristics in local food.
Choosing to keep food dollars local can have a surprisingly large impact beyond environmental outcomes, with many studies citing the link between local food and positive regional outcomes. Bolstering local food systems is seen as a key tactic for economic revitalization, in both rural and urban areas. Dollars spent on local food have a multiplier effect, as more of the price is returned to local producers than in conventional markets. The money is then spent on improving human, financial, physical, and social, and natural capital. More jobs become available, and money can be spent on local businesses and providers. Because of this, the local tax base also increases. DTCs can even act as agrotourism opportunities, which is becoming an increasingly popular activity, that strengthen farm viabilities and producer-consumer relationships. Agrotourism also provides a great example of how keeping food dollars local does not necessarily just mean consuming locally produced food it can also mean patronizing parts of local supply chains, from growers to distributors.
One example of local food in action is Green City Growers. In 2013, Evergreen Corporation, a Cleveland-based company, started the hydroponic greenhouse, which grew leafy greens for local grocers, community residents, and restaurants. By substituting their goods for typical imports like lettuce (which is known as import substitution), not only were they able to reduce the carbon footprint of their produce, but they were also able to create more jobs and a more resilient supply chain. The success of local food and short-supply operations depends a surprisingly high amount on consumers, though. Consumer satisfaction and social support are both necessary to sustain smaller farms and businesses. There is evidence demonstrating that smaller farms engaging in DTC operations have been shown to be more likely to remain in business, but in order for such DTC operations to even flourish, a shift that helps consumers recognize the values of a direct relationship with their food must occur. Plus, the existing dominant food system is still a major barrier to this shift. However, you can play your part in this by continuing to educate yourself on the food system and what it takes to strengthen regional and local economies. The more knowledge and transparency within and about the food system, the more change can occur. Signing up for the CFIO newsletter is a great way to find resources and informative blog posts about food systems at large and in the Northeast Ohio region.
A few years back, Will Cuneo, Jonathan Welle, and a couple other Cleveland residents found themselves stirring over the same gaping hole in our society’s energy distribution system; why are so many communities consistently alienated from the process of owning and controlling energy? From a common goal of addressing cooperative ownership and energy justice, the Cleveland Solar Cooperative was born.
Cleveland Solar Cooperative (CSC) fully kicked off in 2020 as a collective effort of multiple groups of neighbors in Cleveland interested in engaging people who may not traditionally have access to clean energy. The group cites how white supremacy and colonial-rooted dispossession structures manifest in modern energy access as a form of environmental racism. The history of violence against BIPOC and low-income communities in Cleveland has traditionally included patterns of hazardous waste exposure, high air pollution levels, and inhibited financial access to meaningful climate solutions. Thus, CSC emphasizes the urgent need for community-driven renewable energy distribution structures that extend access to solar beyond socio-economic boundaries.
The co-op currently oversees two project groups in Cleveland neighborhoods and works closely with Cleveland Owns, a group that facilitates cooperative business and helped form the organization. Based upon the concept of energy democracy, CSC aims to establish socially-rooted ownership of energy resources to place power into the hands of lower income communities, communities of color, or working class people. Will Cuneo, the Communications Director throughout development of the co-op, recalls how the group “settled on community solar as a way into fighting climate change and increasing access so that anyone could get involved with building clean energy, bringing it online, and owning it in their community rather than having private developers own it.”The co-op currently oversees two project groups in Cleveland neighborhoods and works closely with Cleveland Owns, a group that facilitates cooperative business and helped form the organization. Based upon the concept of energy democracy, CSC aims to establish socially-rooted ownership of energy resources to place power into the hands of lower income communities, communities of color, or working class people. Will Cuneo, the Communications Director throughout development of the co-op, recalls how the group “settled on community solar as a way into fighting climate change and increasing access so that anyone could get involved with building clean energy, bringing it online, and owning it in their community rather than having private developers own it.”
How Does it Work?
Solar energy has already become cheaper than most non-renewable energy resources, depending on specific regional characteristics. As investment increases and solar storage technology develops, the co-op must ensure that more wealth and opportunity is built along the commons model which prioritizes communal ownership above private ownership. With a one-time payment of $25, anyone can become a member and have a vote in co-op matters. In order to vote in specific project group elections, a co-op member can then invest, or commit to invest, an affordable share as low as $50. Current projects underway include the Detroit Shoreway Solar Investment Cooperative, a neighborhood-pooled investment in urban solar arrays near Detroit Ave and West 65th, and the Lakewood Community Solar Cooperative which plans to develop a solar garden in Lakewood.
In order to bring these projects to fruition, the co-op collects community member-based investments to make a deal, or sign a power purchase agreement, with a subscriber who will in turn let the co-op install solar on their host site property. The co-op owns the array, and the subscriber achieves significant energy and financial savings each month. Extra savings then can serve as revenue for the co-op to fund future solar development projects. As a backup option, the organization may bring in a tax equity investor to bridge any potential cost gaps which operate along a predetermined timeline. The local community then benefits through members’ patronage dividends and controlled, reliable, clean energy access that does not serve to profit a corporation, but to increase the prosperity of the neighborhood. CSC builds feedback into its model of energy democracy by giving members votes in all matters, no matter their share size, ensuring that decisions are locally-informed and representative of the community.
Why Community Owned Energy Now?
The increased momentum of community-owned solar in Northeast Ohio means good news for CFIO’s organizational goals of developing an innovative agricultural cluster in the region and confronting poverty-induced food insecurity. The Cleveland Solar Co-op models itself after other thriving solar cooperative groups across the country including the People Powered Solar Co-op in Oakland, CA and Cooperative Energy Futures in Minnesota. This momentum to advance energy democracy nationally offers an opportunity to grow in conjunction with growth in the Ag-tech industry. As we zero in on the importance of local production systems throughout agriculture to support farmers, communities, and regional environmental health, concurring efforts within the energy realm expose opportunities for cross-sector benefits.
Community solar projects like those of CSC enable a lower input cost over time for owners, allocating more money to serve essential functions such as food production. Furthermore, vertical and indoor farming methods which yield significant promise to deliver reliable, year-round food access are inherently energy intensive. Fostering a tight integration between local food production and renewable energy production will serve as a key piece in providing greater resource security to disadvantaged communities. By placing power into the hands of low-income populations via community-owned solar as the Cleveland Solar Cooperative does, we can expand nutritional access and design long-term, sustainable energy solutions that represent the core values we focus on at CFIO.
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.
We’re continuing our review of the 2014 Bush Consulting Group’s roadmap highlighting a five-year plan focused on creating a sustainable food sector and increasing regional jobs, revenue, and sustainability by supporting local food and beverage businesses. In this article, we’ll look at the final four interventions that were proposed in the roadmap and see how far we’ve come to achieving the goals outlined in the original plan. If you haven’t read part one yet, hop over here and catch up.
Intervention 5: Support strategic initiatives of the Ohio Cheese Guild, as roughly 70 new jobs can result from each additional point of attained regional market share.
This intervention had a lot of traction because well, people like cheese. Despite this interest, there hasn’t been a huge boost in activity, and therefore jobs, since the report was published. The industry has been growing steadily, but both Hoy and Gwin agreed that this intervention should be expanded to include all artisan dairy from our grass-fed and organic producers especially. This means products like ice cream and yogurts should also be targeted to really elevate this intervention.
Intervention 6: Support strategic initiatives of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association to help maintain currently high regional market share of local craft beer.
It should come to no surprise that beer is big in Ohio. There are over 300 craft breweries in the state, but there are still some areas for improvement. For example, the state could increase hops production and even malt and barley to better support local supply chains. As of 2018, Ohio only grew 2% of the hops brewed in Ohio according to the Ohio Craft Brewers Association. There are several producers like Origin Malt working to that end but for the most part, there is still a lot of importing happening that could be replaced by local businesses.
Like the previous intervention, this one could be expanded to include other craft alcohols like hard ciders or seltzers. There are efforts in the state to develop apple varieties specifically for hard ciders, for example.
Intervention 7: Refer manufacturers to existing regional energy efficiency financing resources.
This is a space that seemed very promising, but USDA Rural Development is the key source of the small grants and loans and they offer grants covering up to only 25% of total project costs of total project cost for any project involving renewable energy systems and/or energy efficiency improvements. That being said, coming up with the rest of the funding is still a challenge for most businesses, much less entrepreneurs.
As agtech grows as an industry, it will be even more critical to grow this intervention in sustainable ways never thought of in 2014. Keeping carbon footprints low while still achieving the food production and job goals can’t be approached in silos for this system to work.
Intervention 8: Refer manufacturers to existing regional workforce development efforts to improve employee retention.
Creating a partnership between OhioMeansJobs for workforce retention is needed more than ever and whatever progress came before the pandemic is surely lost or in need of updates. Ideas for growing this intervention range from diverting sin taxes to engaging reintegration centers to support a new type of workforce. OhioMeansJobs is supported by beverage sales and it’s a booming sector, especially since the pandemic. But why can’t we dog ear some of those funds for creating jobs for food entrepreneurs that can help shore up our local food system? Unfortunately, there needs to be political will, as with all initiatives. Additionally, can we look into reintegration centers in the region to pilot controlled environment greenhouse production? The pieces are all on the table, they just need to be put in place.
In 2014, the Bush Consulting Group developed a roadmap to build a sustainable foods business cluster for Cuyahoga County. The roadmap was a five-year plan “centered on competitively advantaged clusters, or geographic concentrations of interconnected businesses, suppliers, service providers, and associated institutions in a particular sector.” So, right up The Center for Food Innovation @ Oberlin’s alley!
The roadmap outlines eight interventions needed for the region to meet the goal of creating a sustainable food sector and increasing regional jobs, revenue, and sustainability by supporting local food and beverage businesses. We’re going to take a look at these eight options and see what has happened since the roadmap was created and where there are still gaps in the proposed plan.
We had the opportunity review these interventions with Casey Hoy and Brian Gwin, professor and staff member respectively, at the Ohio State University Wooster extension about the the progress they’ve seen (or not seen). This article covers an overview of the first four interventions, including Hoy and Gwin’s perspectives, and part two covers the last four.
Intervention 1: Establish NEO Food Expo and regional match-maker to help shift $100 million in regional food business spend (2% of total) to local producers.
The region has many strengths it can leverage for this intervention. First of all, more and more people are interested in buying local. Secondly, incubator kitchens are more robust and fairly solid options for entrepreneurs now. Back when the report was created these businesses were still in the development phase for the most part. Now, there are many creators using these spaces and generating enough volume in product that there are now more opportunities in co-packing and refrigeration centers that are needed. One great example of this is Central Kitchen in Cleveland. That being said, there hasn’t really been an NEO Food Expo, and just now with CFI’s creation, a regional match-maker group is only in the beginning phases of supporting organized partnerships.
Intervention 2:Expand nutrition access partnerships to new products and retailers to drive consumption of local, healthy, value-added foods via a federally funded pilot.
While the pandemic opened our eyes to our national and local food systems like never before, there’s still a lot of work to do to educate consumers about the value of local and the true cost of the food in the grocery stores. Additionally, while farmers markets, CSAs and other fresh food sources have gained traction, it will be just as important to maintain current levels of consumer support and increase momentum in the local food movement to see any real nutritional impact in the region. While the pandemic has skewed the number of SNAP benefit participants upward over the last few years, it is expected that the 2023 Farm Bill will only strengthen the local aspect of the program’s reach.
Intervention 3:Develop an anaerobic digestion partnership for food waste recovery to divert 20% of annual food waste.
This may be the least successful of the eight interventions so far. There were a couple projects when this report was written, but unfortunately incentives like federal programs and subsidized loans were stripped away, stunting the expansion of waste and carbon recovery programs. In addition, natural gas prices began to drop around this time too, making it even more difficult for biogas, an end product of these processes, to be competitive on the market. That said, there has recently been a resurgence of interest in biogas in California, so it is possible we could see a similar trend here in Ohio. Quasar Energy Group, an Ohio based renewable energy and organics management company, has actually been installing digesters all around Ohio.
The food waste focus has shifted to reducing commercial distribution waste. This involves redirecting waste in commercial distribution to emergency food suppliers. For example, the Mid-Ohio Food Collective has partnerships with Walmart and Kroger. This may not be a long-term solution though since companies are getting better at keeping their foods fresh and therefore reducing the amount that they would have to either discard or donate, which could impact the feasibility of digesters too if food waste is drastically reduced. On the consumer (at-home) end, composting is becoming more and more popular and accessible with organizations like Rust Belt Riders in Cleveland.
Intervention 4:Assess frozen food intermodal facility feasibility for increasing rail shipments in and out of the region to drive export growth.
There are already a lot of frozen food manufacturers in Northeast Ohio today. One of the issues here is that truck transportation of frozen products is expensive and limits regional export opportunities. With that, the state has been doing a lot to improve intermodal transportation (when two or more types of transportation are used i.e. farm > truck > rail > consumer) to increase export capacity, most notably to allow stacking of shipping containers on the rail system. This means more volume would be able to ship at once and therefore reducing shipping costs.
A growing concern of American food consumers is how they can get fresh, nutritious food from local farms to their plates. However, an equally concerning matter that receives less attention is what happens to that food once it leaves those plates because it is likely that food will be disposed of in a landfill. In the United States, 103 million tons of food, approximately 40% of the nation’s food supply, is wasted every year. While some of this food waste is diverted into feeding farm livestock or recycled into compost, much of it is sent to landfills where it decays and creates a variety of economic and environmental problems. One problem is the hundreds of billions of dollars wasted on watering and transporting crops that are sent to landfills. Another is the creation of methane gas, a greenhouse gas nearly 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide, from decomposing food.
In an effort to combat food waste in Cleveland, Ohio in 2014, Dan Brown and Michael Robinson co-founded Rust Belt Riders, a composting service based in Northeast Ohio. Brown and Robinson collected food scraps from commercial businesses and delivered them to local gardens and composting sites on their bikes. As of 2021, Rust Belt Riders has greatly expanded their operations by employing 16 people, cooperating with 250 commercial organizations, and offering pick-up and drop off services to 1,500 residential households. Rust Belt Riders has also furthered their capacity to process food waste into compost by licensing their own composting facility where they add organic material to the food waste before following a rigorous set of procedures set by the National Organic Program. The final product is their signature Tilth Soil compost that is purchased by farmers, gardens, and individuals alike.
In addition to combating food waste, Rust Belt Riders was also started with the intention of providing direct benefits to the local communities of Northeast Ohio. In an interview with co-founder Dan Brown, he explains how his passion for food preservation began at home as family meals were a gathering place that strengthened his familial bonds and illustrated the community-building potential of food. With a desire to gain a better understanding of the communal benefits of food and the issues related to implementing them, Brown engaged in a variety of food waste related disciplines. These included participating in community gardens, concentrating in food studies during college, and, of course, co-founding Rust Belt Riders. The most apparent services Rust Belt Riders provides to the NEO community are making environmentally sustainable food disposal methods more accessible, cautioning against the danger of food decomposing in landfills, and demonstrating the nourishment that food can still provide even when discarded. Brown also explains that by being a for-profit business, Rust Belt Riders can act as a wealth building agent in a community, which they put into practice by providing satisfactory starting wages of $20 an hour and health care and benefits for full-time employees.
The successful growth of Rust Belt Riders illustrates the potential for innovation and economic growth in the Northeast Ohio agriculture sector as it has established a strong market for sustainable food waste disposal. Rust Belt Riders also demonstrates the innovations that can take place in the practice of business itself. In addition to the wages and benefits mentioned earlier, every employee of Rust Belt Riders has the opportunity to become a worker-owner of the company, challenging the conventional hierarchical structure of business. Furthermore, by being a business rather than a non-profit, Rust Belt Riders can provide unique services such as creating wealth in communities and receiving donations and grants that can and have gone toward researching more efficient methods to reduce food waste. Most importantly, Rust Belt Riders illustrates the capacity that individuals have in positively impacting their community. Rust Belt Riders was started by two individuals who took the initiative in addressing an issue they found concerning and as a result created a successful business that increases their capacity to fight food waste and support their community through sustainable services and providing valuable income.
Dan of Rust Belt Riders hopes to continue making alternatives to food disposal in landfills more accessible to the communities of Northeast Ohio and beyond. Rust Belt Riders is currently looking toward collaborating with local communities and governments in an effort to further expand their composting infrastructure and increase their capacity to convert food waste into compost. For more information about Rust Belt Riders, you can explore their services and soils on their website.
Elizabeth Schuster, Environmental Economist – While much research has been conducted around tech business startups, there is a clear knowledge gap when it comes to helping food businesses start and grow. Entrepreneurial support for food businesses and farmers is as critical as agriculture and food production are a foundation for many rural economies.
Further, in the US, the most conservative estimate shows that family farms, i.e. where the principal operator and her or his spouse provide most of the labor used on the farm, represent 86.1% of all US farms and are accounting for 47.4% of all US farm production.* While large-scale producers have the resources to negotiate directly with corporations and to influence markets, small-scale food producers, especially “startups” in their first three years of operation, are at a high risk of failure.
It has been hypothesized that nonprofits may be uniquely suited to fill the gap with entrepreneurial support for food producers, due to their ability to generate revenues through philanthropic donations, grants and fees. Nonprofit entrepreneurial centers are well suited to support development of local food supplies and value chains because they can work with small-scale producers to customize services offered in balance with adjustable fee structures. These centers can then serve as business “incubators” helping small-scale producers grow and learn in a safe environment thereby allowing them to hit the ground running as they roll out innovations.
The Catalyzing Food Entrepreneurship Project
To better test the role of nonprofits as food business incubators, a team of researchers and community partners is currently leading the Catalyzing Food Entrepreneurship (CaFE) project. This project is partially funded by a grant from The Ohio State University’s Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT), a Discovery Themes program in combination with several in-kind contributions.
The research team spearheading the CaFE project consists of partners from The Ohio State University, The College of Wooster, and Sustainable Economies Consulting (a firm based in Wooster, OH). The team is also leveraging a recent feasibility study completed for the Local Roots Market & Café (co-operative also in Wooster, OH) as a case study to inform the design of the study.
The first phase of research was completed in May 2021 and encompassed 5 focus group sessions with 36 farmers and food producers. These sessions were designed to understand what trainings and programs would be most helpful for food producers or farmers, with an emphasis on value-added agricultural production. Findings from the focus groups will inform a future survey targeting more than 1,500 food producers. Focus group participants were recruited with the help of several project partners including Farm Bureau, Local Roots Market and Café, Countryside Conservancy, ACE-Net, the Center for Food Innovation, and OSU Extension.
Findings From the Focus Groups
Focus group participants ranged from beginning farmers/food producers (in operation for 1 year or less) to experienced farmers (in operation for more than 2 generations with extensive distribution and outlets) and included producers covering several niche products such as hops, specialty crops, heirloom vegetables, heritage-bred livestock, and certified-organic products and coming from different cultural background. Despite the uniqueness of participants, there were several themes emerged across the focus group sessions.
Five lessons learned from local food producers in Ohio related to training and programmatic needs for their business:
Time is a very limited resource often leading to limited capacity.
Businesses and food producers have an incredibly low tolerance when it comes to the risk of wasting time on an ineffective training. Food producers are willing to pay more, and are more willing to participate, in trainings that (1) have been recommended by peers or trusted experts; (2) are led by an individual who has proven success in their business/industry; and (3) lead to tangible actions that will directly improve their business.
Community-based trainings that understand local context are important.
Producers consistently noted that they would be more likely to attend a training or program if the person leading the training had some local knowledge. It is more effective if a trainer understands local markets, conditions and can even connect producers with local contacts. Such context ensures the training is customized to the local situation.
Producers need support with information overload.
Producers spend a lot of time every week Googling and making phone calls to hunt down information. The information may be available, but it is hard to sort all the available information efficiently, which leads to a lot of time lost. Nonprofits and other support organizations can help the producers access information and save them time.
Producers see trainings as networking opportunities.
Many, many producers shared stories of winter being conference season allowing opportunities to meet other producers and share information. They also ranked “learning from peers” as the most appealing format for learning new information about their business. Designing trainings and programs that also help producers network is recommended.
Producers are interested in programs that help them access resources.
While there was some interest in traditional business trainings around marketing, cash flow, and accounting, producers are not only interested in conventional business trainings. They also experienced a need for more support around programs that help them access resources, which include grants, low interest loans, and help finding and vetting seasonal employees.
These results are, of course, preliminary and more research is needed to understand the factors influencing the programmatic needs of food producers and their subsequent willingness-to-pay for trainings. Still, this emergency of consistency across the focus groups helps guide the next steps in the CaFE project as focus shifts to broader surveys and testing of potential trainings offered within a food business incubator.
Acknowledgements: We would like to thank CaFE project team members which include from Ohio State University, Dr. Wuyang Hu (PI), Dr. Lyda Garcia, Dr. Steve Lyon, Dr. Richard Moore, and Dr. Elena Plaksenkova; from College of Wooster, Dr. Amyaz Moledina; and Elizabeth Schuster and Tiffany Leeper from Sustainable Economies Consulting.
Sophie Bernstein – Utilizing a 3.25-acre hydroponic food production greenhouse, Green City Growers (GCG) is the largest production greenhouse in an urban area and the largest covered greenhouse in an urban core in the country. They produce millions of heads of lettuce and specialty greens and hundreds of thousands of pounds of herbs in Cleveland every year, all year. Yes, all year! How is Green City Growers able to produce fresh, pesticide-free food all year round even in harsh Ohio winters? The secret to their success is hydroponic farming and the co-op model.We had the opportunity to chat with Matthew Licina, their customer service manager.
What is hydroponic farming? Hydroponics is an agricultural method that grows plants without soil using supplemental nutrients, artificial lighting, and water in a controlled environment. When using hydroponics, greenhouses control light exposure, water intake, temperature, humidity, and other variables that contribute to a plant’s success. This practice removes much of the randomness and unpredictability that comes with traditional farming without the use of pesticides. Matthew specifies that this technique requires almost constant oversight and hydroponic farmers are constantly trying to find the right balance between the external and internal environment. Hydroponics uses 70-95% less water than soil farming, which significantly reduces the amount of agricultural runoff produced. Plants grown with hydroponics have a quicker growth cycle, resulting in an abundance of fresh, local food. GCG cultivates a variety of leafy greens such as butter lettuce, NuFar Basil, mix bouquet (mixed greens) and their speciality: Cleveland Crisp. They have also started diversifying operations. For example, they are now offering organic herb packaging.
What is special about GCG is that they operate using a co-op model, meaning that all employees are on track to becoming worker-owners from the day that they are hired. GCG follows the 7 cooperative principles established by the International Co-operative Alliance. Employees of GCG help make operational decisions, contribute to the direction of the company, and have their voices heard. Using open book management methods, Green City Growers aims to share and build financial literacy with their employee owners. They provide educational opportunities to their employees such as food safety training, hydroponic farming skills training, and involve them in Evergreen Cooperative’s home buying program. In the words of Matthew, Green City Growers is “growing more than lettuce and herbs here. We are equipping people with solid means and skills. We are stronger when we work together.”
Currently, Green City Growers employs about 40 local community members and is actively working on growing their capacity. They hope to expand the types of produce that they offer and are exploring how they can continually add value for their employee owners. You can find their leafy greens and herbs all across Northeast Ohio at Marc’s market, Kroger, and Meijer’s. They also work with wholesale distributors and institutions such as Premier Produce, Sirna & Sons, US Foods, Cleveland Clinic, and Case Western Reserve University to name a few. To learn more about Green City Growers and the other Evergreen Cooperatives, check out their website for more information!
Ag-bioscience is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about which industries could contribute most to economic growth. However, this industry creates unrivaled jobs and revenue in comparison to other industry clusters!
AgFunderNews offers a great explanation of “ag-bioscience”: “Think of it as an equation – Ag+Bio+Science. It’s where food, agriculture, science and technology converge.” Some industries that fall into the category of ag-bioscience include crop and livestock production, waste capture, biomaterials production, food processing safety, and biofuels and energy production. Basically, from raising a chicken, to making use of its waste, to creating the technology needed to process it into a nugget, ag-bioscience encompasses a broad range of industries.
So which industries in the ag-bioscience cluster have the most potential to grow? In 2013, Bush Consulting Group identified 12 ag-bioscience focus areas in Northeast Ohio that could merit further exploration and investment based on their “scale, potential for competitive differentiation, and opportunity to drive job growth.” Some of the largest of these areas include hardwood logging, lumber, and furniture; packaged food and snacks; beef, pork, and meat processing; and diary and dairy products. In 2013, packaged food and snacks, for instance, was estimated to employ 5,090 people and bring $1,148 million in revenue to Northeast Ohio.
All together, these 12 ag-bioscience focus areas have brought much more employment and wealth to Northeast Ohio than other industry clusters. The 12 ag-bioscience focus areas “total an estimated regional full-time employment of nearly 19,000 jobs and $3.6 billion in revenues,” (Bush, p26) dwarfing the total employment and revenue from areas of advanced energy, flexible electronics, and industrial water.
Clearly, the ag-bioscience industry cluster has already established itself as a fantastic contributor to the Northeast Ohio economy. This aspect of the Agriculture Cluster provides an opportunity for growers/producers to align and expand offerings in support of the ag-bioscience companies in the region.
With projections like this, and most likely with the growth these numbers would see in an updated report, the foundation for Northeast Ohio’s cluster is strong. With the support of an organization like CFI and its partners, this can be a reality. Please sign up for our newsletter to keep up with our progress.