Local food group hopes to grow stronger, nimbler with mobile app and a new location

Food Strong, a nonprofit organization started by South Euclid City Council member Sara Continenza to help with food insecurities in Cleveland and East Cleveland, has expanded its facilities to better serve the community.

While she can often be seen at the Coit Road Farmers Market or working with CMSD and community groups with her Care-A-Van project, Continenza is once again planning ways to eliminate food insecurity in Northeast Ohio by teaching kids to cook and improving access to fresh, locally grown produce.

She recently moved Food Strong from its temporary space in East Cleveland a new space on Train Avenue in Tremont, where she plans to build a 1,000-square-foot demonstration kitchen and accept the food donations that she expects will come rolling in from a partnership with Denver-based Fresh Food Connect—a group that connects back yard gardeners who have excess produce to hunger relief organizations looking for donations.

Fresh Food Connect partners with 58 hunger relief nonprofits throughout the country that engage more than 2,000 gardeners by accepting donations of homegrown produce and redistributing the food to community members experiencing food insecurity.

Food Strong is now making those same connections locally with the new Fresh Food Connect app that allows users to “share their backyard bounty.”

Continenza says she hopes the Fresh Food Connect app will bring in more donations from local growers—like the 75 pounds of sweet potatoes that were recently donated by Case Western Reserve University’s University Farm.

“All of this stuff is just a click away,” says Continenza, who did a stint with the Cleveland Hunger Network, an organization that saw some success with its app that enabled restaurants to donate prepared food.

Teaching through showing
Food Strong has developed relationships to use the donated food. For a start, Food Strong offers cooking demonstrations at Garfield Elementary School, a largely Latinx populated middle school on West 140th Street in Cleveland’s West Park neighborhood where Food Strong regularly sends the students home with produce.

The demonstrations, says Food Strong staffer and AmeriCorps VISTA Ursula McVey, are used to spark conversations about nutrition.

“We sometimes have parents who come in and say, ‘hey, what are you teaching my kids?’” McVey says with a laugh, sharing that the Garfield School students recently made quesadillas with fresh vegetables.

“The app is important because it centralizes everything,” observes McVey, who will manage the launch of the app later this spring. “Instead of you going out and finding food to give to friends and neighbors, it comes to us.”

McVey points to other cities where the Fresh Food Connect app has been used—citing Denver where a joint effort between food groups and biking groups led to bike trailers being built and teens hired to haul donated food from gardens to a central kitchen.

“It has also encouraged [gardeners] to plant another row of food [for donation],” McVey says, adding that Food Strong could use coolers distributed among community gardens to collect food. “Mostly, we want to get produce to people who need it.”

Continenza excitedly mentions that Food Strong’s cooking and gardening demonstrations—on a plot of land donated to them next to East Cleveland’s Coit Road Farmers Market—are back after a pandemic layoff and a pivot to virtual demos.

“It’s an emotionally therapeutic activity, going into the neighborhood and gardening,” Continenza says about her programs with school age children. “I try to show people that you don’t need to be rich to be healthy.”

Her recipe for reaching her pint-sized clients is to meet them where they are—literally and figuratively.

“We’ll do a demo making confetti bean salsa,” Continenza says, adding, “we talk about how beans are good for [lowering] blood sugar.”

Continenza says the often-bland veggies offered at discount stores are just the entry point for discussing of how fresh and locally grown food equals more flavor.

“When we make ramen, I’ll say ‘watch as we throw out that heart attack packet’ [of preservative- and sodium-laden flavoring], and [tell them] you can get noodles and fresh garlic and fresh vegetables at the Dollar Store.”

Chef Shirelle Boyd. cooking demonstrations arranged by FamicosChef brings the heat
When Food Strong first made its connection in Cleveland where it has now gained a foothold, the organization met the (literal) veterans of the trade, like chef Shirelle Boyd, who took a turn as a Navy cook and today brings her energy to slicing and dicing her way through fresh food with youth in the Glenville neighborhood.

Boyd, who after the Navy worked for CWRU food operator Café Bon Appetit, has seen what happens when she gets kids in the kitchen and how the demonstrations alter their relationships with food.

“The catch is, that child who puts the seed in the ground and is accountable for growing that seed… it is much easier to get them to eat that asparagus,” she says. “I call it ‘stealth nutrition.’”

Boyd’s full-time gig is cooking for the nuns at St. Joseph Convent, but her heart is with working with youth.

“Our children are worth making the effort, because they are our future, and they have a big task ahead of them with global warming and the racial divide,” she concludes. “We need nutrition to solve the problems we are faced with. It takes a village that sees underserved food deserts. It takes a village to improve a village. Food Strong is one arm of that village. If a village is a body Food Strong is the limb.”

Read more articles by Marc Lefkowitz.

Marc Lefkowitz is a sustainability consultant with more than 15 years of experience writing, speaking and advocating for a more sustainable Northeast Ohio. He served as Director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute and editor of its well-known blog at gcbl.org. He has a B.A. in English from Ohio State University and an M.A. in urban planning from Cleveland State University. He is a regular bike commuter and transit rider. Photo: Liz Cooper.