My work in local food systems often reminds me of an ecology class that I took in high school.
I remember being intrigued by the diagrams of "food webs" in my textbook: A squirrel eats acorns from an oak tree, which later sheds its leaves in the winter. The oak leaves decompose and become food for earthworms, which then become food for robins, who then become a meal for a bobcat.
With no outside inputs other than rain and sunlight, a food web depicts a highly interconnected and diverse system capable of regenerating itself in perpetuity.
I have often used the term local food web to describe a similar pattern that I observe in the development of local food systems. A healthy local food system works through an intricate web of collaborations and exchanges between farmers, processing or distribution businesses, consumers and waste managers. It minimizes outside inputs of nutrients and energy while maximizing synergies, such as utilizing food waste for composting or bio-gas energy production.
I have seen many examples of how communities evolve their own local food webs, creating pathways for sustainable local economies. In Cleveland, for example, there is a growing network of independently owned restaurants that feature locally grown or prepared foods on their menus. Increasingly, much of this food is grown within city boundaries.
The six-acre Ohio City Farm, located near the West Side Market, supports five urban farm enterprises that employ recent immigrants, adults with developmental disabilities, recent college graduates and area residents. Produce is literally walked down the block to restaurants like the Flying Fig or the Great Lakes Brewing Company. The brewery contracts with refugees at the farm from Bhutan, Burundi and Liberia for vegetables and hops for specialty beers. In turn, the brewery delivers spent grain from the beer-making process to the farm to boost the fertility of its soil.
East of Cleveland, a new local foods initiative in Youngstown combines urban farming with the development of a kitchen incubator. Like Cleveland, Youngstown has been investing in its local food economy as a part of an economic revitalization strategy following decades of loss in steel and manufacturing. The Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. partnered with Common Wealth to get support from the national Healthy Food Finance initiative. This program includes Iron Roots Farm, an urban market farm occupying 1.5 vacant acres of abandoned land. A vacant house on the property will be turned into a training center to encourage residents to farm vacant lots in the city.
To complement this, Common Wealth developed a cooperative kitchen in a former restaurant and bar that can be utilized by urban or rural farmers or aspiring food entrepreneurs. Together, these initiatives hope to turn the abundant vacant land and buildings in Youngstown into assets for the local food economy.
Local food efforts can also stimulate economic activity in small towns and rural areas. Located in Wayne County, one of Ohio's most diverse and productive agricultural counties, the Wayne County commissioners helped to secure two vacant downtown storefronts to help start the Local Roots Cooperative. Local Roots is a "hybrid" cooperative whose membership includes over 130 farmers and over 600 consumers.
Jessica Barkheimer, one of the co-op's founding members, recalled the difficulty of assembling the ingredients for a Thanksgiving meal from local farmers one year. This difficulty in accessing local food, even in an area as agriculturally rich as Wayne County, prompted Jessica and others to form the cooperative. Today, Local Roots improves market access through a retail space for local food, artisan goods or home-produced items in addition to a café and shared-use kitchen.
North of Wooster sits the small college town of Oberlin. Home to a world-renowned liberal arts college and music conservatory, Oberlin has been on the leading edge of many social movements. An early leader in the education of women and African Americans, Oberlin also was among the first institutions in the country to develop a local food procurement policy in the early 1990s. Today, "the Oberlin Project" involves both the city and the college in an effort to transition toward a post-fossil-fuel economy. Growth of local food systems is a part of this strategy, which includes a comprehensive plan to increase local food processing and distribution, utilize waste as an input to local agriculture and promote urban agriculture. In the past year, the Oberlin Project has organized a network of local farmers who are exploring new production techniques that store large amounts of carbon in soil and plant biomass. This provides a promising solution to climate change, offsetting the carbon releases of the community through investments in farms in the surrounding area.
From large cities to small towns, these local food webs signal a new approach to community economic development, rooted in place and based on the coming together of diverse players. These food webs provide powerful tools for communities to improve access to local foods, strengthen farm-to-table networks, utilize vacant land in cities or respond to the threat of climate change. What's more, there is increasing collaboration between communities who often share experiences and best practices with each other.
Over the past decade, I have witnessed an incredible growth of local food efforts across Ohio. Like those food webs in my high school textbook, each of the communities I described has its own web of complex connections that add up to healthier and more resilient communities and local economies.
Inspired by what I was seeing as I visited different communities, I organized NEOFoodWeb.org as a tool to share best practices and creative solutions for local food efforts. Take a moment to visit the site, see the inspirational work of individuals all over Northeast Ohio and think about what role you'd like to play in your own local food web!
At first glance, Oberlin might seem like little more than your typical college town: impressive stone buildings peeking over the trees, immaculate green lawns covered with students playing Frisbee and reading, town and gown alike filling up the restaurants on the few small blocks that make up the historic downtown.
So what makes Oberlin worth a trip? The high quality of what it has to offer.
The first American institution of higher education to accept both men and women of all races as students, Oberlin College was founded in the same year as the town, both designed to be a kind of haven away from the rest of the world. Since 1833, the college and town have grown together, intertwined and inseparable. With year-round cultural, artistic, scientific and creative influences from the college, Oberlin is more than an excellent place to spend four years. And at just over 100 miles from Columbus, it's also an ideal place to spend a weekend.
Arriving in downtown Oberlin takes little more effort than choosing which of the crisscrossed main streets to park on. Main and College are lined with shops and restaurants, quite a few opened by alumni of the college. For general store needs, Ben Franklin, the town's five and dime, has it all—from potato chips and chocolates to gardening and kitchen tools. The craftier of visitors will want to stop by Bead Paradise, with an ever-changing and always-eclectic stock of beads, candles, clothing and jewelry.
For a meal, be sure to swing by the Feve, one of the town's best bars, restaurants and brunch spots all rolled into one. A lunch or dinner of a burger and tater tots is the stuff of Oberlin legend, but brunch—which changes every weekend based on the cooks' culinary whimsy and what local ingredients are available—is what you don't want to miss. It's served every Saturday and Sunday from 9am to 3pm. If the wait is too long, head right across the street to the Black River Café, an equally charming and delicious spot for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner, offering a number of local and organic food options.
Oberlin boasts many other culinary options for the hungry visitor, from Agave Burrito Bar & Tequileria, featuring many locally sourced ingredients; to Cowhaus Creamery, for artisan ice cream from grass-fed cows; to Magpie Pizza to excellent Chinese food at Tooo Chinoise. On any given night at Slow Train Café, an alumni-owned and operated coffee house opened three years ago to unprecedented popularity, you can often find yourself sipping a glass of wine and listening to performances by some of the best jazz musicians in the world from the Oberlin Conservatory. And start the morning with Slow Train's sister café, The Local, to enjoy some choice coffee roasted in nearby Cleveland and freshly baked bagels.
Modern-day Oberlin would not be the same if it weren't for the town's abolitionist and progressive history. To find out more about Oberlin's role as a crucial stop along the Underground Railroad, visit the Oberlin Heritage Center and sign up for one of the famed walking tours of the town. Afterward, see a movie at the Apollo Theatre, which, excepting a recent two-part renovation process to move Oberlin's cinema studies department onto the premises, has been showing films nonstop to Oberlin residents since it presented its first talkie in 1928.
For more culture, the Allen Memorial Art Museum is home to more than 11,000 works of art, comprising nearly all media and gathered from around the world. To see where many Oberlin residents get their fresh produce from the summer CSA, make a stop at the George Jones Memorial Farm, a 70-acre research farm and nature preserve located just outside the town's limits, and take a tour. This community farm and learning center works to create a "truly sustainable food web" by maintaining the land and combining vegetable and fruit production and vermi-composting with efforts to "restore topsoil, wetlands, forest and meadows."
For more adventures into nature, visit the Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, a green building designed by William McDonough, featuring native and edible landscapes appropriate to home or urban-scale production.
A trip to Oberlin isn't complete without a foray outside of it. Cleveland, at a drive of 30 miles away, is chock full of good music, great local food and a thriving craft beer scene. Closer to Oberlin, a quick drive will take you to the Vermilion Valley winery, offering Fall Harvest clambakes and a chance to enjoy the 23-acre farm and winery. Vermilion is also home to Chez Francois, considered one of the best restaurants in Ohio by many a palate.
Savor the apple orchards—several of which you pass by on your drive up from Columbus—that have corn mazes, hay rides, apple picking and pumpkin patches, not to mention homemade apple butter and frozen custard. Stop by on your way in or your way out; just be sure to try the Black River pancakes before you hit the road.
30 S. Main St., Oberlin, OH 44074
Slow Train Café
55 E. College St., Ste. 3, Oberlin, OH 44074
The Local Coffee & Tea
23 S. Main St. (basement), Oberlin, OH 44074
Black River Café
15 S. Main St., Oberlin, OH 44074
19 E. College St., Oberlin, OH 44074
Oberlin Heritage Center
73 S. Professor St., Oberlin, OH 44074
Allen Memorial Art Museum
87 N. Main St., Oberlin, OH 44074
George Jones Farm and Nature Preserve
44333 State Rte. 511, Oberlin, OH 44074
Hours: 10am - –6pm daily or when the gate is open.
Vermilion Valley Vineyards
11005 Gore Orphanage Rd., Wakeman, OH 44889
Squash Panzanella Salad
By Tricia Wheeler
This is my take on a fall panzanella salad. The squash, dried figs and greens are brought together with a simple sauté of greens and the maple dressing adds a nice sweetness.
1 medium squash (acorn or butternut), cleaned and cut into cubes
6 cups mixed greens (I use chard, kale and mustard greens.)
6 dried mission figs, cut into slivers
¼ cup dried salted pistachios
2 cups rustic croutons*
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 small shallot, sliced thin
4 tablespoons maple syrup
8 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Put all dressing ingredients in a Mason jar and shake until combined.
1. You can either roast your squash, drizzled with some olive oil, in a 400° oven until soft—usually about 40 minutes—or cook the squash until soft in simmering water or broth. This can be done ahead.
2. When ready to serve the salad, heat up your skillet with olive oil, toss in greens, wilt for a minute and set aside greens. Pan-sear squash for a few minutes until warmed through and toss back in greens, dried figs and pistachios for a minute. Drizzle with dressing, toss in pan, add in croutons at very end and then arrange salad on a plate and serve.
*Kitchen Tip: Rustic croutons are made with olive oil, sea salt and dried herbs of your choice. Cut bread into chunks—day-old bread works great—toss with olive oil, salt and herbs. Bake at 400° for about 5 minutes, until crisp. Keep an eye on them so they don't overcook. These keep in a sealed bag for a few days.
Coconut Curry Butternut Squash Soup
By Tricia Wheeler
I love coconut milk in soups—it adds a creamy texture without being too heavy. Coconut pairs great with squash. Garnishing this soup with some toasted coconut and pumpkin seeds would also taste great!
1 large butternut squash
1 can coconut milk
2–3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
Juice of 1 lime
1 small yellow onion
2 tablespoons butter
2 small or 1 large apple, diced
2 tablespoons local honey
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons curry powder
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon smoked paprika for garnish
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Peel butternut squash, cut lengthwise, scrape out seeds and cut into 1-inch chunks. Peel and dice apple and onion.
2. Put the butter in a heavy stockpot over medium heat. Add the diced onion and cook until soft.
3. Add the squash, apple, cayenne, cumin, curry powder, cinnamon and honey, and stir until vegetables get slightly browned—add more butter if needed.
4. Add the chicken or vegetable stock, season with salt and pepper; cook until vegetables are soft (about 15 minutes).
5. Once squash and apples are cooked through, use a slotted spoon to transfer the vegetables to a food processor or blender. Add coconut milk and lime juice to the blender and process until smooth.
6. Add blended mixture back to the soup and whisk gently over low heat until heated through. Season with salt and pepper and add additional spices if needed. Garnish with a dash of smoked paprika.
Chipotle Sweet Potato Gratin
Adapted by Tricia Wheeler from a recipe by Bobby Flay
I was looking for a way to change up my traditional Thanksgiving side dishes when I came across this recipe by Bobby Flay for a spicy sweet potato gratin. I have made it many times since—guests always like the unexpected smokiness paired with the sweet potatoes.
3 large sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced into ¼-inch slices
2 cups heavy cream (I prefer Snowville heavy whipping cream.)
1 smoked chipotle pepper in adobe sauce* and some juice from can
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Preheat oven to 375°.
2. Mix heavy cream, chipotle pepper and salt in a food processor until just blended.
3. In a 9- by 9-inch casserole dish, arrange the potatoes in even layers. Drizzle with 3 tablespoons of the cream mixture and season with salt and pepper. Repeat with the remaining potatoes, cream and salt to form layers.
4. Cover and bake for 30 minutes; remove cover and continue baking for 45–60 minutes, or until the cream is absorbed and the potatoes are cooked through and the top is browned.
* Found in the Mexican section of most grocery stores
In Athens, a tight-knit food community charged with collaboration, Chris Chmiel is a pioneer of indigenous plants and processes. He's best known for bringing pawpaws to the people, founding the annual Pawpaw Festival at Lake Snowden 15 years ago.
Yet his influence extends further, into the championing of spicebush berries, farm-fresh goat cheese and locally harvested black walnuts, among other local edibles. Chris, through his farm Integration Acres and a number of local partnerships with food producers and farmers, is effectively bringing Athens to the people in a region where fierce resourcefulness and a long history of agriculture dictate a unique culture of food rife with regional ingredients.
When Integration Acres found its footing in 1996, the atmosphere for growing and selling artisan food products was underdeveloped. Chris and his wife, Michelle, having scooped up 18 acres in rural Athens County after graduating from Ohio University, were first enamored, then inspired, to collect the creamy-fleshed fruit they found in abundance on the property. First as whole fruit, then as pulp, frozen and preserved packaged products, Chris processed pawpaws and began the largest operation to do so in the world.
"People did laugh at me, at first, about the pawpaw," Chris says. With time, amusement turned to admiration.
Pawpaw operations segued into goat's milk cheesemaking and harvesting of black walnuts, ramps, mushrooms and other forest-farmed crops.
"When we work with all these things that are available everywhere, we bring more diversity to the market and the community," says Chris. "It's broadened our basket just a little bit." Rather than plant and harvest according to traditional farming models, Chris works in tandem with the seasons, the land and those species that grow wild, with or without human cultivation.
If Chris could strike gold in a fleshy fruit, so could his neighbors, combining their wares for processing at Integration Acres. Leslie Schaller, director of programs at the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet), has watched Integration Acres's network expand through the years to collaborative business relationships.
"He's been a very dynamic innovator overall, from first looking at embracing pawpaws as viable commercial fruit that more people need to know about to figuring our how to create a value-added supply chain, working with land owners, training them, teaching how to source and handle pawpaws." Says Warren Taylor, founder of Snowville Creamery, "There is no way to overstate Chris's contribution to the Southeast Ohio sustainable community. His creation of the Pawpaw Festival as a way to utilize foraged forest products was followed by his developing a black walnut collection business, which scores of locals utilize for autumn pocket money."
Warren tells the story of Chris, in the thick of black walnut season, thumbing off $100 bills for neighboring Appalachian farmers, payment for the bushels hauled in on the beds of their pickup trucks. Walnuts, once littering the land, quickly found value and a local marketplace thanks to Chris's vision.
In farming and sharing these little-known ingredients, Chris bridges the gap between native people and plants. He not only utilizes unfamiliar plant species but makes them as available as his means allow, sharing them through his own or other community-driven products, or at his market stall.
"We've been able to sell everything that we make," says Chris. That, and "the Athens market keeps getting bigger."
Most recently, enthusiasm has blossomed for fermenting and pickling produce from the summer garden, including dilly beans and kimchee. The construction of a second kitchen accounts for these expanding interests at Integration Acres, and separates cheesemaking into its own quarters.
Though it's a business through and through, Chris believes in the need for and the ability of the land to sustain its people. It's a timeless idea that, today, sounds fairly revolutionary. Take the spicebush, for instance, which produces red peppercorn-like berries once dried and used for allspice during the Civil War. Between the lowly shrub and its myriad uses, there's Chris: disseminator of information, harvester, distributor and enthusiast. He's not just popularized the native plants, he's helped an entire region to discover, or to embrace, an effective means of eating.
Through the work of Integration Acres, his products and festivals (2013 marks the third annual Spicebush Festival), the farmers markets and his role as an agricultural activist, Chris is bridging the gap.
"You look at the way that Chris has worked with others to help them identify ways that they can create pawpaw products, or other products as well, from the forest," says Leslie. "It's this endless opportunity for collaboration that occurs within our local food community that is marvelous and inspiring."
Among the partnerships: Athens bakery Crumbs crafts a ramp pasta from Chris's bounty. Snowville Creamery experimented with a spicebush yogurt. Jackie O's brewery turns out a pawpaw beer each year. Even Jeni's Ice Cream got into the mix with a black walnut divinity ice cream, sourced from Integration Acres, as noted in Jeni's cookbook.
Lately, Chris's hands are full with his new role as an Athens county commissioner, a seat he was elected to last year.
"As county commissioner I have a lot of roles I could play in helping the economy here," Chris says. Primarily, he's focused on how individuals involved in local economic development look at, and ultimately work with, the local food economy.
"We have this mentality that our economic development people work with these big high-tech companies. Yet the local food people have been building strong, multimillion-dollar sales with no help from econ development people. How could we actually support this stuff?"
"Chris has always been a leader and positive provocateur, pushing and coalescing the community's good intentions into meaningful action," says Warren. "For all his contributions, the greatest is in uniting and energizing the community, bringing out the best in all of us."
Integration Acres: 9758 Chase Rd., Albany, OH 45710; 740-698-6060; integrationacres.com. Pawpaw pulp is available at Dublin Whole Foods and can also be ordered from the Integration Acres website.
Pawpaw Ice Cream
Recipe courtesy of Chris Chmiel and Warren Taylor
This ice cream recipe was created by Warren, utilizing Chris's sweet, almost creamy pawpaw pulp. Warren and Chris collaborate regularly. Since Integration Acres is only a seasonal dairy, Chris utilizes fresh milk from Snowville Creamery for cheese when the goats' production slows. Warren's daughter, Celeste, helps Chris and his wife, Michelle Gorman, milk their 70 goats. As neighbors, longtime friends and collaborators, Chris and Warren are fellow warriors for the Athens food community.—CH
Approximately 1 gallon of custard mix makes 1½ gallons of hand-cranked ice cream.
Use heavy stainless-steel kettle, if available. If your cooking pan is thin-walled, be sure to stir well, scraping bottom and sides of pan. It is easy to burn the custard if too much heat is applied, and/or too little stirring.
3 quarts half and half (11% butterfat coffee cream)
1–2 cups sugar or alternative sweetener
1 dozen whole eggs
3–6 cups ripe or overripe pawpaw pulp (a worthy substitute would be mango or a mango/strawberry combination)
Making the custard:
Mix all ingredients together thoroughly in a large pan. If using a hand-held mixer, you may continue blending in the pan as the mixture is heated and stirred on the stove. This improves the heating, reduces burn-on and gives a rich, creamy mixture.
Cook the custard, which should be heated until it starts to thicken (at about 150°F.), and then cool immediately in a sink of cold water. If it is overcooked, the custard can break.
Many flavoring ingredients, including other fruits, cocoa or chocolate can be added to the custard mix before it is cooked.
Refrigerate the mix overnight before attempting to freeze it. (Aging an ice cream mix for a day or two is one of the secrets of old-time fine ice cream making.)
Hand crank or use an ice cream maker, following the manufacturer's instructions. Any sort of flavorings, nuts or good liquor, can be added to the ice cream mix before it is frozen.