City Fresh

Growing Neighborhood Food Systems

Whether homesteading a backyard, canning for the winter or selling at a farmers market stand, a do-it-yourself ethic underlies the local food movement. Beyond all of the benefits of health, freshness and nutrition, participating in the provision of your own food brings about inventiveness, self-reliance and resiliency.

In that spirit, City Fresh formed in Cleveland in 2005 to address the lack of healthy food options all too common to many urban neighborhoods, where fast-food or convenience marts offer the only accessible food options. For City Fresh, the commonly used term “food desert” seemed an inadequate description of these neighborhoods. A desert implies a severe lack, an uninhabitable place. As City Fresh co-founder Maurice Small quipped in 2005, “Everywhere I look [in Cleveland], I see the potential for food.”

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Small, a Cleveland native who learned gardening from his father, saw the potential in Cleveland for good food to be grown in backyards, vacant lots, or sourced from the surrounding countryside. All it takes is the willingness of residents to get together, pool their resources and nurture their own home-grown food systems.

City Fresh began as an initiative of the Oberlin-based New Agrarian Center (NAC), which worked initially with the Cleveland Department of Public Health, Ohio State University extension and the Ohio Farmers Union to find a creative way to make local food more available to urban neighborhoods. Over its nine-year history, City Fresh has empowered neighborhood residents to take control of their own health and nutrition through urban agriculture, youth education and neighborhood-based local food distribution.

Today, City Fresh is best known for the “Fresh Stops” that it operates in 15 neighborhoods in Northeast Ohio. Fresh Stops offer a variation of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription program, in which urban residents pool their money and make in-advance purchases of local food. They become “shareholders” investing their dollars in the lives and soil of local farms. Each week, their investment is repaid in the form of a delicious bounty that changes week-to-week with the seasons.

“City Fresh bridges the gap between the farmer and the consumer, working to provide the best price for the farmer while getting produce into the hands of people at a rate they can afford,” said Nick Swetye, executive director of the New Agrarian Center.

A typical CSA can require a large up-front investment, sometimes more than $500 at the start of the growing season, putting it out of reach of many lowor moderate-income residents. City Fresh permits week-to-week payments, creating an option that works for people with a limited cash flow. Additionally, low-income shareholders receive a share discount and can pay with their Ohio Direction card.

About 30 percent of the 1,000 shareholders that City Fresh serves on a typical week qualify as limited income. “Some Fresh Stops have only about 1percent of their shareholders that qualify as limited income while others have upwards of 90 percent low-income,” added Swetye. City Fresh provides a neighborhood-to-neighborhood support system where Lakewood or Cleveland Heights, which tend to have a higher percentage of full-paying shareholders, support access in neighboring communities such as East Cleveland or Shaker.

City Fresh functions through the hard work of its 150 dedicated volunteers who distribute food and contribute to broader local food initiatives in their communities. For example, a number of gardens have been installed by City Fresh volunteers, including some in unexpected places. In 2006, Maurice Small taught an asphalt gardening workshop where volunteers installed raised beds at Full Circle Fuels (FCF), a fuel station in downtown Oberlin. In addition to hosting a Fresh Stop in the past, FCF offers all vegetable-based fuels, including bio-diesel and straight vegetable oil. Mechanics at FCF converted City Fresh’s diesel trucks to run on recycled vegetable oil, about 70 percent of the fuel used. FCF owner Sam Merrett opined that his is probably the only gas station in Ohio with a garden. When a Fresh Stop operated at the gas station in 2008, Merrett likened it to an “inconvenience store”—a Slow Food equivalent to the refined and processed junk food that populates most typical gas stations.

In addition to gardens, City Fresh volunteers offer a wide-range of education and health activities, giving shareholders a range of tools to utilize local foods. At the Fresh Stop in Ohio City, located at a branch of the Cleveland Public Library, shareholder Susan Jarecke prepares weekly recipes and food samples. Jarecke says, “I try to make recipes easy for people that might not have a lot of time.” The Cleveland Public Library offers a book table as a part of the Fresh Stop. The table features a wide range of cookbooks and gardening books that shareholders can check out through a laptop at the table. Library manager Angela Guinther notes that the library partners with City Fresh to “tailor cookbooks and resources to the types of food that City Fresh offers.”

Like the Cleveland library, every Fresh Stop partners with a community-oriented business or organization such as churches, hospitals, schools or recreation centers. In Erie County, a Fresh Stop was formed in 2012 in partnership with the Firelands Medical Center in downtown Sandusky. According to Lauren Berlekamp, City Fresh coordinator for Erie County, “The hospital had a wellness initiative to encourage employees and patients to consume fresher produce, so they helped with marketing the Fresh Stop.”

Fresh Stops draw a lot of shareholders by offering a dynamic community gathering space where residents can talk, share recipe ideas, or enjoy music or art. The motivations for people to become shareholders vary, according to Jeff Schuler, a volunteer and Cleveland-based web programmer. He notes that City Fresh addresses “social justice, healthy land and the local economy. The fact that all of that is wrapped up together and we can help all of those things is what does it for me.”

At the end of the day, Swetye says that more than just providing a source of fresh local food, City Fresh allows people to contribute to something bigger than themselves. He adds, “Globally, everybody is trying to re-democratize food in the 21st century and City Fresh is maybe a small piece, but it’s a model that is replicable that I am proud to be a part of.”

To learn more about how City Fresh works and how you might set up a Fresh Stop in your community, check out a short film or visit CityFresh.org.