Tilapia and Tomatoes

Transforming the Forgotten Triangle

Damien Forshe plucks a bright red cherry tomato from a spidery green vine inside a greenhouse in Cleveland’s Kinsman neighborhood.

“Try it,” he offers. “It’s like candy.”

He’s right. It melts in my mouth, a ripe burst of flavors I’m not used to from most store-bought varieties.

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This cherry tomato (“Candy,” I agree, asking for another) was grown organically with taste and nutrition in mind. The folks at the Rid-All Green Partnership, a leader in the green food movement that’s sweeping greater Cleveland, didn’t worry about how well it would stand up to being transported or its shelf life in a store.

You see, this small tomato has a much larger purpose: It is part of the Green Partnership’s effort to interconnect food, art and education. It’s a tomato with a message.

“Sustainability, that’s what it’s all about,” Forshe explains. “Everything here has a purpose.”

In the case of the cherry tomato, it’s an important part of a larger food chain, growing with dozens of other cherry tomatoes on the roof of a large 1,200-gallon tank that holds hundreds of tilapia, omega-3-packed fish that are part of an aquaponic system that’s unique in the Cleveland area. The aquaponic system they’ve developed pumps water from the tanks to plants growing on the roof. The plants provide vital nutrients for the fish. The fish, in turn, create effluent-rich water that feeds the plants.

Forshe and his partners at the Green Partnership sell the fish to people who visit almost daily at the three-acre urban farm at East 81st Street and Otter Avenue in Cleveland. The group currently has six fish tanks and is expanding to 12. They expect to be raising more than 8,000 tasty tilapia at any given time.

On one recent Saturday, Forshe and his colleagues show off bunches of watercress that have begun to grow atop the tilapia tanks. They are especially excited because, when dried, the salad staple makes tasty smoothies. As they talk, the soothing sound of running water, created by pumps powered by one of their six 1,000-watt solar stations can be heard inside the main greenhouse.

Plant specialist David Wright passes around a plate of kale chips and points out several red oak branches in which he’s embedded shiitake mushroom fungi. He’s hung them above the tilapia tanks, which provide the warmth and moisture necessary for the delicacy to thrive. Wright awaits the mushrooms that will grow as the branches decay.

“Nature was our first classroom,” adds Keymah Durden, another co-founder.

Depending on the season, the Green Partnership grows corn, tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, peppers, celery, collard greens, kale, broccoli, spinach and herbs such as sweet basil, thyme, and oregano. Its three-acre farm is the cornerstone of a 23-acre urban agricultural zone in an area long known as “The Forgotten Triangle,” a sparsely populated no-man’s-land on the edge of Cleveland’s Kinsman neighborhood where the few remaining residents joke that the population doubles at night as outsiders come to dump garbage, debris and tires.

It is in this most unlikely of places, on land that itself had been an illegal dump, that three childhood friends (and cousins) came to form a business that is, as Durden says, really a “mission to transform the city of Cleveland.”

They started a farm to produce healthy, tasty vegetables, farm-raised tilapia—and jobs for inner-city residents the economy has passed by.

“The big story here is that Cleveland is emerging as a real leader in urban agriculture,” says Randy McShepard, the third co-founder, and also vice president of public affairs for RPM International Inc. “I think that this kind of facility is one of the last, best chances that we have to help low-skilled workers find employment opportunities.”

But the magic here—in addition to the tasty produce and fish—is the people themselves. They are bound by friendship and respect, but couldn’t be more different from one another. Farm manager Marc White is also a fashion designer. Durden, a mechanical engineer whose passion is vegetarian soul food. McShepard, co-founder of the public policy think tank, PolicyBridge, is as comfortable in his “Green-in-the-ghetto” hoodie as he is in a suit.

The urban farm has attracted a diverse group of supporters. They are black, white, Latino, Asian, young and old. They enjoy food and are touched by the spirit of this operation that crosses the lines of race, gender, religion and social-economic status. They include the entire football team of Walsh University, students from Case Western Reserve University, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, officials of the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, the Cleveland Foodbank, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and hundreds of residents.

“We try to meet everyone where they are,” says Durden, who designed the group’s vermiculture composting operation using red wiggler worms to turn food waste and wood chips into “black gold,” a nutritious soil that’s great for gardens, especially inner-city raised-bed or rooftop planters where people might otherwise worry about contamination.

The group’s efforts have received praise from Will Allen, one of the most renowned urban farmers in the country. Allen and his company, Growing Power, Inc., have brought healthy food to thousands of people in Milwaukee and Chicago, attracting national attention, including praise from First Lady Michelle Obama in her fight against childhood obesity.

“They really work well together as a team,” says Allen, who trained the Rid-All founders in the techniques of urban farming and helped them develop a business model. He’s also tapped them to be one of Growing Power’s 15 regional urban farming training centers, a responsibility that has helped the group develop business relationships in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

In April, the Green Partnership opened a store, The Natural Effect, in the Colonial Marketplace on Euclid Avenue downtown. The store offers food and other products from the urban farm as well as clothes, art and jewelry. And Forshe has led the development of an educational program reaching hundreds of inner-city children through an essay contest and the creation of “Brink City—Green in the Ghetto” a comic book that features a hip-hop theme and superheroes who fight environmental injustices. The comic books, which feature the colorful, funky urban art of Martinez E. Garcias, were the basis for a play that opened at Karamu House early last year.

Ultimately, the Green Partnership founders see the act of farming—putting your hands in soil, and seeing the food it produces—as a healing force for individuals, for the Forgotten Triangle, and for Cleveland.

“There’s nothing like growing food, getting your hands dirty, to help you stay healthy and connected to nature,” says Durden, “We were meant to do this. It’s who we are. We just need to rediscover our roots. It’s like [rediscovering] the night stars that are drowned out by city lights.”

You can learn more about Rid-All Green Partnership at RidAll.org or, better yet, stop by to pick up some fresh tilapia and tomatoes and see what’s going on for yourself.