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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
- Advocates are creating a “closed-loop” system to aid areas that can be “food deserts” by meeting needs where the needs are.
- They are creating value in part through developing businesses that complement each other.
- Cleaning up littered neighborhoods has helped create space for everything from composting to fish farms.
- The efforts have created jobs for veterans and young people and drawn attention of celebrity chefs and pro athletes alike.
On a dead-end street in Cleveland’s Kinsman neighborhood, on 18 acres of land that previously served as an illegal dumping ground, an entire food ecosystem has emerged and thrived under the leadership of local residents.
Rid-All Green Partnership started with a single hoop house erected in February of 2011; now acres of farmland support a community kitchen and farmer’s market. All food waste is turned into compost, which supports the farm and is sold across Cleveland. A training program and paid apprenticeships bring community members in, while an aquaponics and hydroponics system generates local jobs. Specialized programs emerged to serve veterans and youth.
“We’ve created a circular economy,” says Keymah Durden, a Rid-All co-founder who grew up in the neighborhood. “Piece by piece, we’ve built this business with things that complement each other.”
Durden is one of three co-founders, all childhood friends who grew up on Cleveland’s east side. Rid-All’s name comes from late co-founder Damien Forshe’s company, Rid-All Exterminating Corp., which he operated for 15 years before transitioning to agriculture. He was inspired by a research report written by co-founder Randy McShepard that advocated for building urban farms in vacant land following the 2009 foreclosure crisis. (Cleveland had one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, with many of the vacated homes demolished.)
The trio secured 1.3 vacant acres in Kinsman, a neighborhood struggling with disinvestment and entrenched poverty. They prompted the county and others to clean the illegal dumping ground; more than 2,000 tires, burned out cars and abandoned refrigerators were removed. They participated in a five-month training program at the Milwaukee urban farm Growing Power and were inspired by two things: creating their own soil to replace the contaminated soil in their lot and investing in fish farming, which could become an income generator to support a larger urban farm.
In addition to building a hoop house to begin growing plants and vegetables, they collected food waste from local businesses around Cleveland, creating compost for their farm and selling it. They built a self-sustaining hydroponics system to grow fish in tanks and vegetables on a connected top tier, with the fish waste fortifying the plants and the plants supporting clean water for the fish. In the first three years, they grew and sold 10,000 tilapia out of one greenhouse.
It was enough success to secure an investment to build a 7,200-square-foot urban fish farm, which now grows 70,000 tilapia that Rid-All sells to local restaurants. “These two critical pieces of our business — the fish farm and the compost — came from our early learnings and realizing there was a market for both,” explains McShepard.
As Rid-All grew, the nonprofit secured adjacent land. It is now an 18-acre campus with two greenhouses, six hoop houses, a commercial composting station and a rain catchment pond. The nonprofit was also named the official tree nursery site of the Cleveland Tree Coalition and will be growing and selling at least 5,000 trees over the next few years as part of a larger effort to reforest the city.
“We’ve looked at ways to stay current and evolve over time,” says Marc White, a founding partner who serves as operations manager. “We didn’t want to be stuck just growing vegetables, we wanted to grow community.”
To that end, Rid-All introduced workshops, trainings and apprenticeship programs, including specific programming for youth and veterans. The farm now employs 18 people, many of whom are from the neighborhood and offers summer employment for young people.
Its two latest developments cemented Rid-All’s circular economy model. In the summer of 2020, Rid-All began operating a farmer’s market in Maple Heights, a suburb bordering Cleveland that’s considered a food desert. This was Rid-All’s first opportunity to sell produce at scale. “Whatever we grow at the farm we can sell at the market and any produce that doesn’t sell we bring back and it becomes compost,” says McShepard. A chef sets up in the market once a month to share meals and recipes using the produce currently for sale.
In the spring of 2021, Rid-All opened a new building on its campus to serve as a community kitchen, market and restaurant facility. Similarly to the market, anything grown by Rid-All is cooked up and sold in the community kitchen, any food waste becomes compost. “This is a full, closed-loop ecosystem now,” McSheperd says.
Durden oversees the community kitchen. “The building is styled like a log cabin, which is such a unique feature to inner-core Cleveland, that it’s almost become a showpiece,” he says. On Tuesdays and Fridays they sell meals cooked by rotating guest chefs; Kinsman residents often eat alongside local government officials and professional athletes.
Rid-All hosts cooking and nutrition classes here and rents the space out for meetings and special events. They also plan to use the kitchen as an incubator for emerging food businesses and staging facility for food products that require processing and packaging.
Durden calls the farmer’s market and community kitchen “game changers” in that “everything we grow here at the farm, we can translate to our market and our kitchen.”
“This is a real Cleveland story,” he says. “It’s as local as it gets — three kids who grew up on the east side who now represent this good-faith and hopeful messaging around agriculture that shows what can be possible.”
This story was originally published by Next City, a nonprofit news organization covering solutions for just and equitable cities.
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