Food Justice: Many Clevelanders struggle for healthy, affordable food

Abraham Acoff waits in his minivan for his weekly selections from the Euclid Neighborhood Pantry.

“They bring everything out to me,” Acoff says. An accident years ago cost the former crane operator most of his left leg. He cooks but finds it hard to wheel himself into a grocery store. He often runs out of the pantry’s provisions and goes a day without food.

A client picks out bread at the Euclid Neighborhood Pantry“I make it through one day at a time,” he says. “Trying to stay out of a nursing home.”

Two years ago, the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County declared racism to be a public health crisis. One component to health depends on healthy food. Many Clevelanders—especially poor and minority residents—aren’t getting enough of it.

Many efforts are underway at farms, community gardens, markets, foundations, social service organizations, and public agencies to nourish communities like Cleveland—the nation’s poorest big city. 

The goal has been called food access, nutrition equity, and, increasingly, food justice.

The idea is not for outsiders to heap their notions of nutrition on the needy. “We’re not trying to put a program down people’s throats, to say we’re Captain Save-the-Day,” says food systems expert and social entrepreneur Ismail Samad, who’s pickling produce, running a farmers’ market, and planning a cafe in East Cleveland called the Loiter Marketplace

The idea instead, he says, is to help residents create and staff food programs, grow as much of the food as possible, distribute it, and rebuild their neighborhoods under the Loiter umbrella.

Food is intense. “It’s almost intimate,” says Roger Sikes, a program manager at the Cuyahoga County Board of Health. “We need it daily but approach it with years of habit and centuries of tradition. It’s material and emotional. It bonds families, relationships, cultures, and communities.”

The need to feed
Euclid Neighborhood Food Pantry client Jerome Jackson says, “If they didn’t open places like this, half of us would starve to death.”

Even with the pantry’s giveaways, Jackson sometimes goes a day without eating. “You don’t want to go to someone else’s house to beg for food,” he says. After all, that person might be short on food, too.

The Euclid pantry is run by the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, which provided 53 million pounds of nourishment last year to 343,000 people in six counties. On a typical Wednesday, cars line up at Muni Lot on South Marginal Road for about a mile and wait about an hour to get the Food Bank’s potatoes, watermelons, English muffins, and other food staples.

While directing Food Bank traffic on the hot asphalt, volunteer Terrence Rounds says, “I wish more people came.” Many stay away out of pride, lack of wheels, or lack of knowledge. “Poverty does not come with a handbook.”

The Food Bank tries to focus on emergency needs. But there’s no time limit on the emergencies. Most clients interviewed have been regulars for a while. Most are elderly and retired. They see no end in sight to their struggles for food.

Last summer, 10% of people surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau said that their households had lacked enough food in the previous seven days. A study in the Annual Review of Public Health said that some people forgo medications or exchange sex for food, and some turn to crime for it—hoping at least to get a meal in jail.

Yet there’s no shortage of food. There’s enough of it to support a $3 billion yearly industry in 18 Northeast Ohio counties. There’s so much that America pitches a third of its food, worth $408 billion per year, clogging inorganic landfills.

Volunteers help distribute food at the Cleveland Food Bank Mobile Pantry Program at the City of Cleveland Muni LotEating and ailing
Much of our unwasted food is unhealthy. Industry has trained us to crave salt, trans fat, and federally subsidized corn syrup. And although 60% of us eat vegetables daily, our favorite vegetables are potatoes—usually fried.

In the olden days, our bellies were our banks. We typically ate whatever we could and hoarded any extras. Many of us still do so out of need, fear, or habit.

We’re likelier to swell than starve. We eat about one-third more calories than we need and 42% of Americans of are obese—with 50% percent of African Americans falling into the obese category

In the past 23 years, severe obesity has nearly doubled among adults—from 4.7% to 9.2%.

The poor tend to be portlier. Among youth ages 10 to 17, the obesity rate is 8.6% in the wealthiest families but 23.1% in the poorest. 

Some critics say that the standards for obesity are racially biased, but however it’s measured, there’s no question that excess weight harms health. It contributes to cancer, diabetes, osteoarthritis, heart disease, liver disease, anxiety, depression, and much more.

Food insecurity adds $1,863, on average, to adults’ health bills. What’s worse is unhealthy diets are considered the nation’s leading behavioral cause of death, outdoing tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. 

These numbers are part of why Greater Cleveland neighborhoods vary in average life expectancy by more than 23 years.

Food deserts
A few men are hanging one morning outside the Sunoco convenience store on East 93rd Street. One man, who withholds his name, says he works too many hours to buy raw ingredients and cook them. “I get a lot of on-the-go food, he says.

Inside, Sunoco owner Moe Itayem sells canned food and other non-perishables. “I tried oranges,” he says. “I tried bananas. I tried apples. But they would not go.”
           
Fifty-nine percent of Clevelanders live in a food desert. That’s a census block with two burdens: More than 30% of its households lie within 200% of the federal poverty line, and it’s more than half a mile from the nearest grocery store of at least 10,000 square feet. 

That distance probably wouldn’t much bother drivers, but 26% of Cleveland homes lack vehicles, and local transit can be indirect and infrequent. So, it’s hard to haul food home, especially if it needs to stay cold.

Gladys Walcott, former East Cleveland councilwoman, raises produce in an old parking lot of the Coit Road Farmers MarketAs of 2018, Cleveland had 43 stores of 10,000 square feet or more. With a few exceptions, like Simon’s Supermarkets in Midtown, Buckeye-Shaker, and Collinwood; and Park to Shop in AsiaTown, most of the larger stores are in whiter and wealthier neighborhoods. 

There are three Marc’s on Cleveland’s West Side but none on the East Side. Dave’s has opened a 55,000-square-foot emporium on the commuting route of Chester Avenue but closed three of its seven smaller stores in the city.

Decades ago, Cleveland had many small grocery stores with plenty of fresh food. But supermarkets displaced most of them and eventually retreated to the suburbs with the customers. 

“Most of the high-quality chains have abandoned the inner cities,” says Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin. Cleveland’s void has been filled mainly by drive-up liquor stores with a few munchies, gas stations with a little grub, markets as small as 577 square feet, and some 70 discount stores between 3,000 and 15,000 square feet.

A City Hall report says neighbors complain that the discount stores are dirty, draw loiterers, and sell unhealthy food. “That is exploitation,” says Griffin, who in January led the passage of a bill to ban new discount stores within two miles of existing ones and to try to improve the quality.

Small stores tend to sell small quantities at proportionately high prices. Earl Pike, executive director of University Settlement in Slavic Village, recently paid $2.25 at a corner store for a small can of beans that would typically cost about $1 at a supermarket. It turned out the can of beans had passed its expiration date.

Big or small, Cleveland’s new health director Dr. David Margolius says city stores tend to display sugary food and soda more conspicuously than suburban stores do.

Is good food affordable?
You got any cheaper bread?” customer James Holt asks manager Shahbaz Sadiq at Simon’s Supermarket in Collinwood. Sadiq finds a suitable loaf. “Thank you,” says Holt. “God bless.

Food prices have inflated especially fast12% in a year. Low-income households spent one-third of their incomes on food last year.

Ken Ackley says he makes $3 too much for SNAP benefits. He goes to Muny Lot every Thursday for food from the Cleveland Food BankThe federal government gave out $183 billion in food benefits during fiscal 2021—49% more than the year before. But recipients spent 80% of their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by the second week of the month.

The USDA says SNAP recipients can afford healthy diets But Cleveland’s Center for Community Solutions says SNAP has fallen short for about 40% of Cleveland’s female recipients ages 19 to 50 and 80% of male ones, who tend to need more food.

Urban farms and markets
Keymah Durden waters greens in a balmy hoophouse at Rid-All Green Partnership.
Rid-All’s staff, known as the “Soil Brothers,” tends one of the nation’s biggest urban farms, with 18 acres in Kinsman. The farm trains youths and adults, runs a part-time cafe on the farm, and operates the full-time Farmer Jones Market in Maple Heights.

On Cleveland’s big swaths of vacant land, about 30 farms have arisen, and so have 148 community gardens in the Summer Sprout Program, run by the City of Cleveland and The Ohio State University Extension, Cuyahoga County.

Not much food grows in Cleveland’s snow. But Rid-All raises tilapia, aloe, and oranges in hoophouses heated up to 100 degrees. Artificial heat costs and pollutes. But Rid-All is in a federal pilot project to heat with wood and plants that form biochar, a material enriching soil and sequestering harmful carbon dioxide.

“Urban agriculture is sort of ahead of its time,” says Durden. “We could replicate this model all over the country.”

How's it taste?
Many diners think healthy is not tasty,” says a resident quoted in a Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) study on nutrition equity. “It’s easier to eat unhealthy because it tastes good.” Greater Cleveland Food Bank client Jackson adds, “I don’t care for vegetables. When we left Alabama, I told my grandmother I ain’t eating that anymore.”

Then again, activists say nutritious can be delicious, and traditional can be made healthy. “My mom wants her greens cooked to death, but she no longer requires them to be cooked in fat,” says Michelle Jackson, who researched local diets for CWRU. She says cayenne pepper and paprika have helped Mom adjust.

Local produce can be pricey. But advocates say it’s tastier and more nutritious than mass-produced fare from the Sun Belt, which if often picked long before its prime and often stored long past it.

Some Cleveland residents lack adequate kitchens to prepare full meals, experts say. “It’s hard to cook a frozen turkey if you live in the woods,” says Jonathan Gray of Trials for Hope, an organization helping Cleveland’s hungry and gives homeless people handier fare like peanut butter.

Most locals have simple kitchens that can’t compete with the sets of food shows. But advocates say simple’s good enough. “We’ll show you how to use everyday utensils to cook healthy,” says Sherita Mullins of Burten, Bell, Carr Development, a CDC serving Central, Kinsman, Buckeye-Shaker, and Buckeye-Woodhill, whose Cornucopia Place teaches cooking.

Still, cooking takes time. “If you have three kids and two jobs,” says University Settlement’s Pike, “it’s tuna and ramen noodles.”

Coit Road Market seeks more customers
On a mild Saturday morning, just a few vendors and customers show up at the Coit Road Farmers Market in East Cleveland. The customers are mostly from “up the hill,” as East Clevelanders say about wealthier suburbanites.

The market is 90 years old and struggling. “I wish I had an answer,” says Kevin Scheuring, the market’s vice president. “We’ve tried so many things.”

In a parking lot that the market no longer needs, Gladys Walcott, former East Cleveland council president, grows produce in raised beds and gives it away. She wonders why more people don’t seek the handouts offered at many gardens, churches, and other sites. “Someone’s giving away free food every day.”

A long line of cars for the Cleveland Food Bank Mobile Pantry Program at the City of Cleveland Muni LotSearching for justice
Activists say all sectors should do more to help Cleveland’s farms, markets, gardens, and consumers. Early this year, Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb’s transition team proposed several relevant steps—including an environmental justice fund and long-term leases for city-owned farmland. A spokesperson says the administration is considering responses. The city is also trying to rejuvenate the 110–year-old West Side Market.

The Biden administration has created or expanded several programs for farmers and consumers, both rural and urban. Cleveland congresswomen Shontel Brown and Marcy Kaptur recently introduced a bill to expand programs connecting farmers, markets, food banks, and consumers.

Advocates see good examples in other cities. Boston has a Mayor’s Office of Food Justice to improve healthy food accessibility and affordability. Detroit has a new “agrihood,” a planned community with a farm. Many cities have food co-ops, unlike Cleveland, whose co-op closed in 2011.

Activists hope to better educate the victims of food injustice without blaming them for their limited choices. “People in a community like East Cleveland are always dealing with a crisis,” says Coit Road Market’s president, Joe Jerdonek. “They’re going to think about having a meal, whether it’s healthy or not.”

This project is part of Connecting the Dots between Race and Health, a project of Ideastream Public Media that investigates how racism contributes to poor health outcomes in the Cleveland area and uncovers what local institutions are doing to tear down the structural barriers to good health. The project is funded by the Dr. Donald J. Goodman and Ruth Weber Goodman Philanthropic Fund of The Cleveland Foundation.

In the coming months, FreshWater will be covering affordable housing, access to food, access to resources, and neighborhood improvement as we explore the declaration that racism is a public health crisis.

Read more articles by Grant Segall.

Grant Segall is a national-prizewinning journalist who spent 44 years at daily papers, mostly The Plain Dealer. He has freelanced for The Washington Post, Oxford University Press, Time, The Daily Beast, and many other outlets.