Just ask Veronica Sims, project coordinator for Akron Summit Community Action (ASCA) and Akron’s Growing Hope Food Summit. She is seeing a holy convergence of factors igniting the movement in Akron like never before.
“What’s happening in Akron is a reflection of a national and regional trend hard to ignore,” she says. “Michelle Obama planted a community garden on the White House lawn as part of her ‘Let’s Move’ campaign. Will Allen’s Milwaukee-based Growing Power program is inspiring us. Cleveland, always a national leader as a fresh food capital, has provided many consultants and micro-business models for us. And, our very own unique, countywide ‘Growing Hope Food Summit’ has spurred incredible initiatives.”
Sims also points out that funding infusions, usually a key ingredient in other grassroots movements, is not yet a driver.
“Collaboration, however, is the name of the game,” adds Sarah Vradenberg, an emerging leader in the movement who is also a Master Gardener and coordinator of Neighborfood, a support group for community gardeners. She, like many other locavores, is witnessing another key ingredient in the mix — the surge in collaborative efforts among nonprofits, government agencies and community volunteers, as well as private businesses working closely together to move new initiatives from concept to reality.
It’s resulting in so many new community gardens and farmer’s markets at local churches, nonprofits and neighborhood groups that it’s difficult for anyone to throw out a number. Recent guesstimates put the count within Akron’s city limits at more than 60 community gardens and 20 farmers’ markets, growing om average 20 percent per year.
Taking root within the last few years
Within the last few years, several Akron-area organizations– whether spiritually-based serving disabled or assisting low income or challenged youth and adults–have started urban gardens and are serving local fresh produce to its constituents, including South Street Ministries, Urban Vision, The Landing, Heart for the City, CityHope, Unitarian Universalist Church of Akron and First Congregational Church of Akron.
Operating for more than 20 years under the leadership of the late Elaine Evans, Let’s Grow Akron is attributed as the pioneering organization that turned Akron’s vacant lots into community gardens. The organization, now under the leadership of Lisa Nunn, is currently racking up dozens of gardens of its own, predominantly surrounding the Summit Lake area. The organization also runs Harvest of Hope, an entrepreneurship program for low-income children who learn how to grow produce and then sell what they grow at their own farm stands.
Let’s Grow Akron’s Children’s Garden near Summit Lake is currently undergoing renovation in honor of Evan’s memory. It’s complete with a pond, vegetable and flower gardens, playful sculptures, a prairie house for children to play in and a 60-foot replica of a canal boat.
Bath-based Crown Point Ecology Center, operating a farm by the Sisters of St. Dominic of Akron since the mid ‘60s, has been a regional model for sustainable agriculture and environmental education since opening to the public in 1990. “We are the longest running CSA in the region with more than 260 families participating each year,” says new Executive Director Nancy Wolf. “The organization offers a wide range of workshops and study groups to the public, including a variety of summer camps for kids, a farm and science camp and youth service learning projects,” she adds. Crown Point also gives away tens of thousands of pounds of produce every year to local food banks, restaurants and community members in need.
Hattie Larlham, the nonprofit organization serving people with developmental disabilities, through its program called Hattie’s Garden, opened an experimental farm with raised beds, hoop houses and composting operations on the grounds of Crown Point Ecology Center, at Old Trail Schools collectively on 5 to 6 acres and now the Akron Zoo on 2 acres. Not only are the farms providing employment and job skills for people with disabilities, they are also yielding fresh, organic, locally grown produce for its cafe and food service and local farmers markets and food banks.
The Countryside Conservancy, a nonprofit formed in the late ’90s to re-establish farms in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, now operates farmers markets at Howe Meadow and Highland Square in Akron. “We also have other programs to help up-and-coming farmers find land, connect local growers to chefs and consumers and educate citizens about the importance of local food systems,” says Local Food Programs and Market Manager Beth Knorr.
Akron Summit Community Action (ASCA), a private, nonprofit corporation dedicated to providing a wide range of services for low-income residents of Summit County, has been committed to improving nutrition and stimulating the local economy through fresh local food via support of community gardens, farmers markets and nutritional education.
In the past few years, it has stepped up its efforts, pledging resources for involving the low income community in community gardening, starting farmers markets and getting inner-city corner stores to carry fresh produce throughout the city’s notorious and extensive food desert neighborhoods.
What is attributed to ultimately galvanizing the local food movement in Akron?
The Summit County Food Policy Coalition (SFPC) was founded in 2009, with regularly scheduled quarterly public meetings, is attributed to spawning many of Akron’s current local food projects. The SFPC manages a pilot program to bring more fresh foods into Akron’s corner stores, maps food deserts and developed a food charter adapted by Summit County and the cities of Akron, Cuyahoga Falls and Fairlawn. It’s a policy document to establish priorities for building the county’s local food system and economy.
Growing Hope, branching out of SFPC, is a collaboration with chief sponsors–Crown Point, The Countryside Conservancy and ASCA and facilitated by Round River Consulting. A myriad of other nonprofits, government entities, community agencies and local food proprietors such as Ms Julie’s Kitchen and Mustard Seed, also participate.
The first Growing Hope Food Summit, April 2011, was organized in response to the results of the mandated Community Health Assessment commissioned by Akron Children’s Hospital, Akron General Health System and Summa Health System that pointed to the need to increase access to affordable fresh foods for Summit County’s residents, particularly those of low-income. It was designed to develop strategies aimed at creating a localized food system to increase accessibility, strengthen the economy and empower the residents.
Planting the seeds, reaping a bountiful harvest of local food projects
Since the Summit was held, Growing Hope has continued to provide a steady stream of community programs, including its annual summit, food documentary movie nights, community garden tours and healthy food cooking workshops.
Neighborfood, also sprouting out of SFPC, focuses on learning how to grow food and provides guidance and microgrants for new community gardens. It’s a kind of support group for community gardens, providing a forum for “foodies” to share their successes and challenges while raising the visibility of community gardens as a whole.
Also boosting the community garden effort is OSU Extension Service – Summit County’s commitment to offer its Master Gardeners’ expertise and “Farm to School” curriculum to assist new and developing community gardens, many which are church- and public school-affiliated.
Akron’s local food movement is also impacting local dining establishments, corner stores and alternative populations who in the past have been neglected or bypassed altogether. A few food emporiums featuring local fresh food include Ms. Julie’s Kitchen, Edgar’s Restaurant, Urban Eats, Hattie’s Cafe, Chin’s Place, The Blue Door and The Rail. Unique organic food purveyors include Plant Kingdom Snackery & Bakery’s hemp seed-based snacks and Akron Honey Company.
The Karen and Bhutanese refugees whose numbers are surging throughout Akron, particularly in the North Hill neighborhood, are also participating due to their backgrounds steeped in agriculture. Oscar BaAye, a Karen native and community activist, says, “Urban farming is ideal for the Karens’ future here. It’s an economic opportunity we can all rally behind.” The Karens have already introduced specialties like terracing, underground irrigation and alternative crops to community gardens and vacant lots in Akron’s urban core.
“Its not just some Akron developers and community organizations seeing the value of food-based programming,” says Chris Norman, local food advocate and director of urban planning for East Akron Development Corporation. “Foundations and public officials are beginning to support food-related projects, which will magnify the effect local food and healthy food access programming can have on policy and outcomes.”
Still a long row to hoe for the local food movement?
Despite all the recent ruckus and new support in Akron’s local food movement, many local food leaders see it still in the germination stage with many a long row to hoe.
Even with the movement in full bore in Akron, “Not everyone in our community yet has access to healthy, local foods,” explains Knorr. “This is a huge hurdle, but one that by working together we can overcome. By heading up The Countryside Conservancy’s farmers market program and ag consulting services, she sees a gap between suppliers and the growing demand for local food, from institutions such as schools and hospitals in addition to individual families. “We need to share with young people the potential for farming as providing a good livelihood. In short, we need more farmers!”
According to Vradenberg, “Our challenge still lies in educating the general population about the importance of local food, including eating seasonally and how to prepare fresh produce and preserve what is grown.”
If the movement continues its soaring momentum, Sims sees an optimistic future for Akron as “a world leader in local food by providing its citizens with a strong economic base, energizing the entire community and serving as a catalyst in retaining its next generation.”
Akron’s Local Food Movement Timeline
Yet, to understand how this movement blossomed recently in Akron, it’s helpful to first take a glimpse into its original roots.
Local food timeline
In the mid-‘70s, The Akron Cooperative formed to operate a co-op grocery in Highland Square for the city’s sizable “bean and Birkenstock” crowd with local seasonal produce and a few reiterations, ultimately closing its doors about a decade later.
In the early ’80s, Mustard Seed Market opened as a small health food store in the Merriman Valley, emerging a decade later as the city’s major organic grocer and café for Fairlawn’s Market Street retail mecca. In the late ‘80s, Let’s Grown Akron started turning inner-city vacant lots into lush and bountiful gardens renowned for combating Akron’s mushrooming urban blight.
In the ’90s, the surviving Mustard Seed and Let’s Grow Akron, together with Crown Point Ecology Center, The Countryside Conservancy and a handful of city-led community gardens, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farmers markets, kept Akron’s local food movement on life support.
The Akron Cooperative re-emerged in 2008 under the new leadership of founding member Larry Parker, educating the inner-city on how to grow, prepare and preserve its own food through a proliferation of backyard “recovery” and community garden programs. It assisted the City of Akron’s new “Akron Grows” and University Park Alliance’s community garden programs until Parker’s death in the spring of 2010. Let’s Grow Akron came to the rescue, helping to manage the two then-fledgling garden projects that are flourishing today.
The Summit Food Policy Coalition began holding its first public meetings in 2009. It also set up a food charter and an urban farming initiative.
The first Growing Hope Food Summit took place April 2011. Facilitated by Round River Consulting with an attendance of nearly 250 people affiliated with a myriad of organizations, it was designed to develop strategies aimed at creating a localized food system to increase accessibility, strengthen the economy and empower the residents. Neighborfood was organized to coach and support the influx of new community gardens throughout Akron.