Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb is creating a new City Hall position that will focus on food.
The Food Systems Strategies Coordinator will examine ways to build up Cleveland’s economy by creating employment opportunities in agriculture. The coordinator will also focus on improving residents’ access to affordable, fresh fruits and vegetables and to other resources in their neighborhoods.
The position is one of 19 in the country. It is funded by a two-year grant from the Workforce Development Fund of the Ohio Department of Health and will fall under the Cleveland Department of Public Health. The job is posted on the city’s career portal; April 10 is the deadline to apply.
The food coordinator will be tasked with developing policies that will make it easier for residents to grow food in their communities, according to the job description.
The coordinator will also be the city’s liaison with nonprofits, healthcare organizations, city agencies and local residents as they address the issue of food insecurity, hunger and sustainability in Cleveland.
Health Department Director Dr. Dave Margolius said Bibb’s administration met with local farmers, agricultural groups and sustainable-food experts to talk about the issues that limit access to food in the city, a situation referred to as “food apartheid.”
Food apartheid, a term coined by community activist and scholar Karen Washington, is created by long-standing issues of economic inequality and racism.
“They told us not to think of it as hunger or food deserts because it doesn’t give the necessary blame to systems of oppression,” Margolius said. “This person will help ask, ‘What can we do to support local growers, local grocers and create supply chains that aren’t dependent on outside food sources?’”
Food apartheid is highly concentrated on Cleveland’s East Side, where people of color living in historically redlined neighborhoods are dealing with the highest levels of poverty.
The underinvestment in these areas has correlated with negative health outcomes and lower life expectancies, Margolius said.
With hunger becoming a rising public health issue in Cleveland, he said, this position has never been more important.
“With the severity of poverty in our city and some national attention to hunger issues, [Bibb] asked me to take the lead on coming up with a framework [for this position],” Margolius said. “We’re excited to host this type of work in the department because it truly is public healthcare.”
Trey Williams, CEO and founder of Hood Honey 216, an organization dedicated to urban farming and to generating Black economic development in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, said the position will create new possibilities to examine food and land equity issues in the city.
“The application didn’t have strict requirements and allowed it to open up to people in the community, primarily on the East Side, or for someone to work with people who look like me,” said Williams, who is Black. “I hope whoever fills this position will think beyond food systems but look at land equity for Black landowners as well.”
Williams said the new coordinator should help Clevelanders who have a hard time accessing healthy, nutritious food.
He said the pandemic showed that supply-chain issues mean produce and other food products won’t always be immediately available. But city farmers working with grocers can create a better food system, he said.
“Local growers and farmers can help support big chains and stores in our communities as we continue to adapt to new systems,” Williams said. “It’s not always about not having fresh fruit and vegetables. But it can be about who is making it, selling it and canning it.”
Grocery stores are important to community members as they provide access to food, medicine, basic household items and banking services. They also provide jobs.
It is estimated that there are 233 grocery stores and 11,000 produce store workers in Cuyahoga County, according to a 2023 Cuyahoga County Grocery Store Assessment from the Cuyahoga County Board of Health and the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission. Nearly 178,000 county residents and families are low-income, are less likely to own a vehicle, and are less likely to have access to a neighborhood grocery store.
Food insecurity had been made worse in the city by recent cuts to the federal budget. In January, Congress passed a budget that ended a three-year program that temporarily boosted the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The bi-monthy monetary increases in the food-assistance program were aimed at helping families during the pandemic. In an effort to help residents affected by the cuts to SNAP, the city launched a monthly food giveaway Wednesday. The city estimates that one in three–or nearly 114,000 residents–has been affected by these cuts.