Cleveland’s Food Justice Hero: Councilman Joe Cimperman

The surprise darling of the Community Food Security Coalition conference last May was a little-known city councilman from Cleveland. He spoke fervently about his city, a city of flourishing community gardens, backyard bee hives, and chicken coops, a city where all farmers’ markets accept food stamps, where schools get discounts for sourcing local food, and where both trans-fats and smoking on playgrounds are banned. His name? Joe Cimperman.

A 4th term Democratic city councilman whose parents hail from Slovenia, Cimperman is a vocal advocate of community gardens, which create community and self-sufficiency. He told of coming together with community leaders, public health officials, doctors, and foundations to pass the Healthy Cleveland Initiative — a series of audacious policy goals that will improve the health of Clevelanders for years to come. (That is, if Ohio’s Republican-majority legislature doesn’t pre-emptively squash them.) He ended with this rallying cry: “Why are we in food policy? Because we want our friends to live longer!”

What are Cleveland’s secrets for becoming a food justice utopia? I recently interviewed Cimperman to find out.

How did you get involved in food justice issues?
It was Marge Misak at the Community Land Trust, Kristen Trolio, who is a community organizer and a farmers’ market pioneer, and Morgan Taggart from OSU land extension. In about 2002, they came to me about the garden on west 45th Street, St. Paul’s Patch, asking me how we could preserve both the garden and the housing next door. The developer was working behind everyone’s backs and told the community gardeners that it was city-owned land and zoned residential. He wanted to turn the garden into a parking lot and evict the family next door.

I had barely been on the council for a term — I had no clue about anything. They said, “The only way you’re going to change anything is if you change the zoning code.” I thought, well this sounds like a great idea, and these are people who I admire and trust. I’m learning from them. So we did it.

So all of a sudden people in the community started saying, “Hey, what about this? And what the hell are you doing about this?”  It was the education of a Councilman. They started to pull me under their wings and say, “You don’t have to think about this now, but this is something you’re going to have to think about in five years.” We’re servants so we have to fix these things.

So, Cleveland really was the first city to pass an urban farm zoning law?

Well, we passed it in 2007. The only way to create justice in this situation was to create a permanent garden there — change the zoning of the community garden. So we start calling around — Portland, Boston, Seattle. No other cities of any size had such a law. That’s when we wrote the legislation ourselves. It ensures that no one can rip out the community’s investment overnight. After that, community gardens would come forward and say, “We’d like to zone our garden this way, too.” People think twice now about threatening gardeners because it’s there.

What other efforts is Cleveland taking to ensure that all residents have access to affordable healthy food?

A funny thing happened on the way to the community garden. There are so many people out there doing urban gardening and agriculture that it’s changed the tenor of the city. So much so that the City of Cleveland has said, “This is important enough for us to change laws. Now the city gives out $3,000 forgivable loans to market gardeners — more and more people are keeping their own chickens and bees. There are 250 community gardens that we know of and we think that there are an additional 75 that operate with some support from the city.

There’s also a strong agricultural ring around Cleveland and that has yielded a great farmers’ market situation. Amanda Dempsey, who is now managing Cleveland’s West Side Market, is the reason we’re having an international Public Markets Conference in Cleveland. I’m really proud of what Cleveland is doing.

All of Cleveland’s farmers’ markets now accept food stamps (aka SNAP benefits), right? That’s impressive. How did that come about?

John Mitterholzer at the Gund Foundation has a real passion for social agricultural justice. He came to me and said, “I’d like to fund a program to give people on food stamps an incentive to shop at farmers’ markets.”  We meet, come up with an idea on four specific farmers’ markets which were willing to accept both EBT (the debit card for food stamps), and a $5 matching program. In some cases, the number of food stamp shoppers doubled. Then we did a study with John, on the zip codes around the farmers’ markets and showed the amount of money available if everybody with food stamps and WIC used the farmers’ market.

Farmers were like, “You mean, I get to go home with an empty truck? And I get to sell to people who really need this food?”

Everyone agreed it was a good idea but it had been kicked around for a decade. With the Gund Foundation and people in policy and politics like me backing it, it was hard for farmers’ markets to say no.

[Today, 14 of Cleveland’s 15 farmers’ markets accept food stamps and 13 are part of the EBT Incentive Program.]

You gave a rousing talk in May at the CFSC food policy conference in Portland, Oregon. Portland is often cited as a model for farm-to-school and urban agriculture. What can Cleveland take from Portland’s example?

I was out on Sauvie Island to visit Sauvie Island Organics and the Food Works youth gardening program. I saw four school buses pull up while I was there. If you want to educate kids in every way, that’s how you do it. I want to figure out how to do that in Cleveland. The conference was great — we got so many ideas and talked to so many people. There are many programs on the horizon in Portland — beautiful new public housing projects like New Columbia, which has a community garden called Seeds of Harmony. They’re opening up corner stores with affordable, healthy food like Village Market.

There’s a debate about whether or not it’s necessary to bring full-service grocery stores to food deserts. Some in the food justice world think you can you just bypass the big box grocery stores in favor of community gardens and family-run bodegas (that are stocked with lots of fresh produce). What are your thoughts on this?

In the 90’s, there were areas of Cleveland where there were 100 blocks where you couldn’t get fresh produce. The Department of Economic Development is working on changing that — they’re giving huge subsidies to local grocery store chains such as Dave’s (a family-owned chain with great labor relations).

Now we’re doing the bottoms-up approach. We have a pharmacy, Sheliga Drug, that’s started carrying a line of produce. They’re supported by the Ohio State extension. There’s a hardware store in a Latino community that has bins of apples, bananas, everything else. We’re definitely not where we need to be — but my opinion is that if we start from the grassroots, do the community gardens, family-owned shops and so on, somewhere heaven and earth will meet.

Tell me about the Healthy Cleveland Resolution.  What part of it are you most excited about?  What’s going to be the most controversial aspect?

We are going to have Dr. Anthony Iton, the doctor from Place Matters, come back to Cleveland, and we’re going to do a day-long session for thought leaders: politicians, foundation people, corporate folks.

What I’m really excited about is that our school system has shown itself to be very interested in food justice. They want to help us achieve a garden per five blocks, by reinstating this program that came from the Victory Garden movement. Cleveland was the leader in school gardens nationally back then. There’s a new book about it called Cleveland School Gardens by Joel Mader.

We’re also working with cafeterias, which are continuing their progression of sourcing healthier food.

The chief purchaser for the Cleveland Public School District was nominated for something called the Walnut Award. His name is Regis Balaban. He has figured out how to get sugared cereal out of the schools by getting wholesome cereal with skim milk and fresh fruit. He said to me, “Please don’t stop passing legislation.” I said, “It’s kind of funny you’re saying that to me, because you’re exempt from the stuff I’ve been pushing through.” But then he said, “I can use what you’re doing to force my providers to provide us with better food.” For me in terms of food justice, that’s kind of the big.

At the CFSC Conference, you said that the life expectancy discrepancy between an African American community in Cleveland and the white community was 24 years. Fully half of those years were attributable to smoking and diet.

In neighborhoods with community gardens there is less crime. There are more people attending school. We have a high-rise in downtown Cleveland that’s 22 floors. There are about 24 seniors who live there — mostly African American. They’re petitioning me to purchase containers because they want a container garden on the rooftop. They left their homes, they like walking to the theatre without the burden of a mortgage.

It’s not specific to one community, though. The fact of the matter is that the neighborhood that has the 24 year disparity, Hough, is almost 100 percent African American. There are a lot of other issues, of course: violence, the ability to access health care.

As you and I speak, the Ohio state senate has introduced legislation into the budget banning the city of Cleveland from banning trans-fats. Let us die early! Let our children be morbidly obese! They admitted that their restaurant industry wrote the legislation.  So now the battle for food justice has begun.

If the state senate does this, it’ll strike down Cleveland’s law. [Last month, that's exactly what the Ohio state senate did, tucking the provision into a 5,000-page budget law. Cimperman has said he'll challenge it in the courts.]

It’s ridiculous! The trans-fat ban came from doctors and public health professionals. The four major health systems in the state  — Cleveland Clinic, St. Vincent’s, MetroHealth, and University Hospitals — have all signed on to the Healthy Cleveland Resolution. The hospital systems are the number one job provider in Ohio. How do you say to these hospitals, “You don’t know what you’re talking about”?

I may not understand trans-fats, but why the hell is the government telling locals what we can and cannot do?  They haven’t found a way to ban community gardens.

Here’s my gut feeling. What’s going to happen when those 300 gardens that we have in Cleveland double? When in 2020 the city of Cleveland will have a community garden within five blocks of every resident? All of a sudden, local grocery stores are working with local farms. What’s going to happen when the hoop houses start to provide food three seasons a year? What happens with canning? What happens when agribusiness starts to see this? We have a multinational food production company here in Cleveland. I was at a meeting a couple months ago and some folks from this company started asking me about local food. I think we’re starting to get people’s interest. We’re not a threat yet, but what happens when we become a threat?

What can other cities learn from Cleveland when it comes to food justice?

We let the policy be informed by the practice. We have a lot of people who have been doing this for generations. There’s recognition of that: the importance of learning from our elders. Also, we all really like each other. We enjoy each others’ company. Entire weddings are filled with friends and guests who they meet from within the food justice world. Regardless of your political background or racial background or your proficiency in English, there’s something about the gardens that brings people together!

Community gardens just make us a nicer city. They make us share more, pay more attention to each others’ kids, understand each others’ cultures more. There are just so many ancillary benefits to community gardens — we can’t imagine.

The business community is also excited about the hope of urban agriculture and food justice. It means so many things in terms of employment and in terms of people having a purpose and getting out and getting to know your neighbors. I think if we can keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to be in a really good spot.

Originally published on The Faster Times

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