Robert Patterson lives about two minutes from the Mid-Ohio Foodbank’s urban farm, Clarfield, on the south side of Columbus.
As president of the Marion-Franklin Area Civic Association, Patterson admittedly has his “hands in a little bit of everything” in one of the big city’s more challenging neighborhoods, but the community farm that began there three years ago holds a special place in his heart.
“Anything they need done, I’ll do it,” he said. “If they need volunteers, I’ll get the volunteers. It’s had a beautiful impact on our community. It’s drawn neighbors together and we’re feeding more people. People are really, really enjoying it.”
It’s that kind of impact and community engagement that Mid-Ohio Foodbank was hoping for when it leased five acres of empty urban property three years ago and repurposed it for agricultural use.
It’s the same community spirit being cultivated on the west side of Columbus, on the “Hilltop” at another 5-acre property, the Wheatland Urban Farm, which had its dedication ceremony in August. Its first growing season is planned for this spring.
Mid-Ohio Foodbank officials know there is more than one way to combat an urban food desert and expanding on community farms in city areas is another way they are doing it.
“We redid our strategic plan three years ago,” said Yolanda Owens, manager of communications and digital media for Mid-Ohio Foodbank. “There were three aims to it – feed the line, end the line and mobilize the public – to go from awareness to engagement to action.”
The foodbank, which serves 20 counties from Columbus east to the Ohio River, has been finding ways to get enough food into the hands of food-insecure Ohioans for more than 35 years. While the need continues to grow, one of the foodbank’s main goals is to make the need disappear or help “end the line.”
In recent years a stronger emphasis has been put on adding fresh produce to the list of shelf staples to help fulfill that mission and put healthier food options on the table.
“Now half of the food we move is fresh (produce),” Owens said.
One way to enhance that effort is to plant gardens and grow fruits and vegetables in the places with the greatest need and cultivate a sense of ownership and civic pride with those who benefit the most – that is how the urban farm came to fruition.
“We’ve had three growing seasons at Clarfield,” Owens said. “It’s been pretty awesome. We’ve had a lot of community buy-in.”
Community volunteers not only benefit from the produce, they help to grow it, weed it and sell it at community produce markets.
The foodbank intends for its farms to be self-sustaining. Pay-as-you-can produce markets, as well as local community partners such as local restaurants, are helping make that happen, Owens said.
And, if they are volunteers who have helped till the fields and nurture the crop of greens, onions, carrots, tomatoes and more, they get to take some home. Patterson helps deliver the free vegetables to the elderly in the community who may otherwise not have the ability to get it.
Owens expects the newer Wheatland Farm to go through the same metamorphosis when its first growing season begins. One acre of the farm is expected to be planted this spring.
“People’s curiosity will grow with the crops and they will want to get involved,” she said. “Plus the Highland Youth Garden is about a block from there, so people are familiar (with the concept).”
Already several school children have learned what it’s like to work on a farm through trips to Clarfield. Owens said one of the hopes is that both farms will spark an interest in agriculture and possibly become a starting point for a lifelong vocation.
The foodbank’s Urban Farms of Central Ohio is a subsidiary of the organization and has several community supporters, including Scotts Miracle-Gro which began its GRO1000 program in 2011. The goal of that program is to support the creation of at least 1,000 community gardens and green spaces in the company’s service territory in neighborhoods and areas in most need. Wheatland was the 500th project Scotts sponsored, Owens said.
“We received $25,000 from Scotts to start the farm, plus some product,” Owens said. “We want to start our own CSA and programming, eventually.”
But, if you ask Patterson, the “community supported agriculture” has already begun.
“The whole community is really engaged,” said the Cleveland native. “We’ve had youngsters out there and they were more fascinated by it than even I was.”
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