Fresh food takes root in Fairfax

Fairfax has been labeled a food desert, but that may be starting to change. Residents are banding together to provide healthy food options to the community.

PNC Fairfax Connection, The Fairfax Learning Farm, and other local entities are part of an ever-expanding effort promoting nutrition education in the neighborhood.

Accessing local produce

As one of four East Side learning farms organized under Holden Forests & Gardens’ Green Corps initiative, the Fairfax Learning Farm employs high school students—who work 20 hours per week—and gives the community access to affordable fruits, flowers, and vegetables from June through October.

The farm is a product of foresight and fortitude. According to Kelly Barrett, director of Green Corps, initial soil tests indicated high amounts of lead and arsenic. Green Corps removed the top foot and a half of soil, covered the new surface with a thick, black tarp, and added an additional two feet of wood chips. Taking extra caution, they grow produce in locally bought soil, not soil native to the site.

Barrett knows that the farm, on East 79th Street between Amos and Lucia avenues, is beneficial to Fairfax residents—particularly seniors. “A lot of them, they’ve told us, have a hard time just getting around in general,” Barrett says. “So it’s really convenient for them just to be able to walk down the street and buy some produce.”

The Fairfax Learning Farm is not just student-tended, it's student-built. And it's not only for the students who gain invaluable experience and earn a paycheck, it's also for the community. According to Barrett, 44 percent of total sales from the farm stand so far this year are from electronic benefit transfers and incentive programs. This means Fairfax residents are taking advantage of this community resource, which purposely prices food at its farm stand at discounted rates.

<span class="content-image-text">Student workers at the Fairfax Learning Farm show off the results of their hard work.</span>Student workers at the Fairfax Learning Farm show off the results of their hard work.The Fairfax Learning Farm isn’t alone in its efforts to boost community access to healthy food. In fact, the farm has some welcome competition from other urban farms in the area, Barrett says. There are also food pantries in local churches.

Families who cook together stay together

Since 2014, PNC Fairfax Connection’s Families in the Kitchen To-Go program teaches families about healthy meals they can make together. Tiffani Sutton, founder and executive director of The Cutting Board Academy, leads the program, typically on the third Wednesday of the month, featuring a meal that she and her team of sous chefs prepare.

<span class="content-image-text">Tiffani Sutton leads a Kitchen To Go session.</span>Tiffani Sutton leads a Kitchen To Go session.Sutton says the “To-Go” part of the name reflects a raffle; at the conclusion of each session, two families leave with ingredients to make the meal again for themselves. “You just never know what kind of a situation a family may be in,” she says. “So to be able to raffle something off like that every month to a family that may be in need or maybe even trying to figure out how to manage their diets or make a change, that’s just a really cool thing to have been implemented.”

Sutton knows how important any bit of increased accessibility can be for families, and she’s especially keen on opening Fairfax residents’ eyes to alternative, affordable food options.

“Oftentimes, when we are operating on a tight budget, we kind of go with what works,” Sutton says. “And so the intention of [the program] is to say, ‘This will also work out. It may not necessarily be directly a part of your repertoire, but give it a shot, and it’s still in your budget.’”

Susan Blasko, youth and technology coordinator at PNC Fairfax Connection, echoes Sutton’s strong belief in education.

Blasko facilitates the Kids in the Kitchen program. At 4 p.m. on the first two Wednesdays of the month, kids of all ages arrive at PNC Fairfax Connection for a crash course in cooking a meal or side dish. On Aug. 7, the goal was guacamole, and the dozen or so kids left not only with the satisfaction of a snack but also with the joy of making it themselves. A few participants even left with the avocado pits, determined to grow new avocados for themselves.

<span class="content-image-text">Susan Blasko facilitates a Kids in the Kitchen session.</span>Susan Blasko facilitates a Kids in the Kitchen session.“Even if members of the community may have access to certain foods and fruits and vegetables and things like that, we want to make sure they understand what they can do with it,” Blasko says.

There’s hope for a healthy future. Food access, which has been an issue in the past, continues to grow. “From the time that we started the farm, from what I’ve witnessed over the years, I think there’s definitely more local food access in the neighborhood,” Barrett says.

Ultimately, if Fairfax is to genuinely reinvigorate itself, it will need accessible, affordable, healthy food and residents who know what to do with it; one without the other won’t cut it. The people leading the charge know this and are working hard every day to educate the community members to, as Blasko says, “find something delicious, engage that spirit for the love of healthy food, and fold the different recipes into their own family traditions.”

This article is part of our On the Ground - Fairfax community reporting project in partnership with Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation, Cleveland Clinic, PNC Bank, Greater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, and Cleveland Development Advisors. Read the rest of our coverage here.