Food Chain

The curious connection between local food and biking

It’s a typical Cleveland scene: a restaurant or pub filled with cyclists, their chamois-padded bodies packed around tables piled high with burgers and beers to fuel their ride, talking and eating happily before they head back out on the road.

At its root, the correlation between biking and food is really quite simple: Athletes need fuel. When cyclists go on a 40-, 50-, or 60-mile ride, they need something to keep them going. But the connection between the two cultures runs much deeper. It’s a part of a larger movement back to the urban core and the smaller, more socially conscious communities within them.

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“You see a lot more young people back in their city centers and they want to experience that city more,” said Jacob VanSickle, executive director of the bike advocacy organization Bike Cleveland. “Cycling helps you experience your city, and so does eating local food. You’re getting to know a place you love on a different level.”

All over the country, cities are making these same changes—building protected bike lanes, establishing community gardens, and implementing bike sharing systems—to attract the young, urban professionals who have been priced out of the larger coastal cities and are moving back inland. In a recent study for the Case Western Reserve University’s Center of Urban Poverty and Community Development, it was shown that despite the fact that Cleveland’s overall population has declined by 17% over the past decade, the inner core and downtown have boomed, growing by 96% in two decades, spurred on by a surge of young people looking to work, live, eat, and bike local.

Take Ohio City, for example, one of Cleveland’s most vibrant neighborhoods. Here, you can live in an apartment within easy biking distance of the West Side Market for artisan goods, Joy Machines Bike Shop for a tune-up, a locally-brewed beer at Nano Brew, or produce at the six-acre Ohio City Farm that supplies vegetables and hops to many of the West 25th Street restaurants.

“We measured the distance from Nano Brew to the farm: 192 feet,” said Sam McNulty, owner and founder of the “biker bar” on the corner. “That’s pretty local. So we know our farmer. We know that we’re getting real, authentic food that was grown with care and is ultra-fresh because it was literally walked across the street to us.”

Rising Star Coffee Roasters, on West 29th Street in Ohio City, takes that idea to heart and, when possible, makes bike deliveries of their house-roasted beans to local businesses.

“Bicycle and food culture are growing together,” said general manager Erika Durham. “It makes sense that people who are paying attention to their physical health and the health of their community would benefit both from cycling as well as fueling a new, locally based food movement.”

“And we wouldn’t be doing any of it if we didn’t love Cleveland,” added VanSickle.

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Cycling and local food are more than trends or hobbies. There is a large element of social consciousness inherent to both cultures, a value placed on the well-being of the individual, the community, and the environment. Inherent in these values is the question of accessibility.

“You start getting into social and socioeconomic issues with food—who’s getting it and who’s not getting it,” said Shawn Belt, a former farmer at Ohio City Farm.

Within both biking and food worlds, the boutique quality of many providers is a hindrance to lower-income families being able to afford, say, a share in a local, organic community-supported agriculture (CSA) model or a bike made by an artisan craftsman. Without these resources available, it becomes necessary to turn to the mainstream culture of huge, impersonal corporations—places like Walmart and McDonald’s. You might save money, but the tradeoff is still quite pricey in terms of health and safety.

Consider a Walmart bike that costs less than $100 maybe, but is manufactured thousands of miles away in China and assembled by someone who knows nothing about bikes. Not only is there no personal connection or care involved, but odds are the bike will fall apart in less than a year. A McDonald’s Big Mac is on the same level. Comparing the calories to the price might make it seem like a bargain, but the nutritional value is miniscule, both in terms of your health and the health of the community.

“We call the Walmart bikes BSOs—bicycle-shaped objects,” said Jim Sheehan, the executive director of the Ohio City Bicycle Co-op. “They look like a bike, but they just don’t work like one. They’re almost designed to be unfixable. It’s complete ‘uncare.’ And a Big Mac is an FSO—a food-shaped object. It’s not designed for nourishment. It’s designed to make somebody money.”

With that in mind, an important step in the bike and food movements is to rid itself of the “hoity-toity” reputation, as Belt put it. But more and more these days, it’s just that—a reputation. Many Cleveland farms have affordable CSAs and sell their products at reasonable prices, and places like the Ohio City Bicycle Co-op use an earn-a-bike program, in which volunteer hours can earn you points toward your own two-wheeled transportation.

Much of the battle that needs to be fought in terms of access, then, is in the realm of education.

“People just don’t eat vegetables anymore,” said Belt. “It’s not about how people don’t have access to the vegetables that they really, really want. It’s that they didn’t grow up eating vegetables. It’s just not a thing anymore.”

“It’s the same with cycling,” said Sheehan. “The reason that in Holland people don’t wear helmets is that they have lower crash rates because they have experiential learning since they were kids. We have to catch up with a lot of this stuff.”

Fortunately, Belt and Sheehan aren’t the only ones working to catch up. From the City of Cleveland’s work installing 500 bike racks to VanSickle’s advocacy for protected bike lanes, Green Corps’ focus on youth education in sustainable agriculture to the Ohio State University Extension’s many courses on local food issues, organizations and businesses around Cleveland are teaching residents the skills they need to live healthier lives and teach others to do the same.

“Historically,” said Marty Cader, the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the City of Cleveland, “we’re a great city for both bikes and urban farms.” With very wide streets and little traffic, there is room for bike lanes. And with so much vacant land, victory gardens, community gardens, and school gardens have thrived for decades.

“So Cleveland’s move back to these cultures isn’t a new thing,” said Belt. “It’s just re-learning what we know already.”

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As connected as the bike and food cultures are, the movements are running on different timelines. Local food, for whatever reason, is slightly more advanced in its mission, having already succeeded in beginning to shift the culture away from the mainstream model of large-scale supermarket food.

“There’s been a long movement for advocacy, for getting the city to work with us as much as possible, and for getting partners and stakeholders to say that local food is something that needs to exist here in Cleveland,” said Belt. “Now, it feels like local food has gotten a lot of that, and we’re in a mode to either get more people growing food or eating that local food.”

Cycling, however, has yet to overcome that initial hurdle.

“We’re still trying to convince the city that it’s an important investment,” said VanSickle. “There needs to be a push within our city government to show that our streets aren’t just designed for commuters coming from our suburbs into the city, they should be designed for the neighborhoods and the people who live there.”

“More than a quarter of Cleveland households,” said Cader, “do not own or have access to a car, which means that they rely on buses, rapid-transit trains, walking, and biking as their means of transportation.” Yet, despite the statistics, cars still rule the roads, a fact that many are working hard to change.

“I’d say that the bike community is in the same spot that the food community was five years ago,” said Sheehan. “We’re still trying to make our case. But we’ve got the capacity to do it, and we’ve got to start building the movement.”

That movement starts slowly, in small ways, just like it did with food. You shop at the farmers market once a week one summer, and the next, you’ve joined a CSA; you take part in one of Bike Cleveland’s monthly Bike to Work days one year, and join a bike co-op the next. Those grassroots communities build on each other, gaining momentum as more and more people become aware of, and educated about, just everything there is out there for them to take part in.

“We’re a culture of small-scale craftsmen,” said Cader. “Cleveland has craft brewers, craft bike builders, small-scale farmers. It’s all about building something local.”

“All forms of thoughtful urban recreation tie together well,” said McNulty. “Bicycles, craft beer, local food, the whole thing. Let’s face it. What are we doing all this for? There’s good karma in it all. We can sleep better at night knowing that we’ve made the world a better place by doing what we’re doing, but we’re doing it because we enjoy it. Bottom line.”

To find out more about what’s happening in the local bike community, visit BikeCleveland.org or find Bike Cleveland on Facebook.