Zainab Pixler’s earliest memories involve two things: food and family. 

They include sitting at the dinner table with her father and siblings eating dad’s signature lasagna and driving to the local farmers market in Southern California with her mother to look for lush fruits, green vegetables and fresh-cut meats. 

It was those special memories that made her want to dedicate her life to food and to serving others. Now, Pixler is working as Cleveland’s City Hall’s new Local Food Systems Strategies Coordinator, whose sole responsibility is to bring  healthier food to residents. 

“Food is an integral part of life and connection,” Pixler said. “I decided to make a career out of it.” 

Pixler joined the Cleveland Department of Public Health at the end of July. She will work with city officials, local grocery owners, food advocacy groups, health organizations and residents to brainstorm possible solutions to address barriers to accessing healthy food.  

Pixler said she hopes to create policies that will support residents’ long-term needs and health.  

“It’s not new work,” Pixler said. “A lot of folks have been doing [this work] in Cleveland for decades. I’m really here to support the work that’s already being done and bridge those gaps.” 

As Pixler highlighted in this conversation with Signal Cleveland, her work is all about forming connections, learning about residents’ needs and collaboration. (This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.) 

What got you interested in food work? 

My first job in high school was in food service. I loved it so much, I decided to dedicate my entire life to food and serving others. I went to college in Syracuse, New York, to study food studies and supply chain management. 

Post-college, I worked at the Greater Cleveland Food Bank. I was a retail donation program coordinator for two years. I educated grocery store teams and food service employees about donation programs and food safety. I also worked with county meal pantries, hot meal programs and homeless shelters to rescue food and ensure it got into the hands of people that needed it as quickly as possible and not end up in landfills. 

I left to pursue a job at a national nonprofit called the Center for Good Food Purchasing. I worked mainly with public institutions like school districts, departments of corrections and hospital systems to shift their purchasing away from conventional food sources grown and processed in artificial methods. I advocated for local, home-grown, nutritious food sources.

What does “food systems” work mean? 

There are so many different ways to think about how food systems work. In basic terms, it could mean everything from how food is produced. This includes thinking about farming and gardening to processing and distributing food to how people buy or get their food in traditional retail markets, within their schools or anywhere else they’re eating their food. Food scraps, food waste and even composting food and turning it into soil is also a part of the food system. It is thinking about every single point along Cleveland’s food web and how it contributes to people getting their food and meals. 

It is not enough to just have emergency food programs to feed people in need. It is crucial, but it is not sustainable. What we need to be thinking about is more proactive solutions.

Zainab Pixler, Cleveland’s food czar

What’s on Cleveland’s food agenda? 

It’s definitely a question that keeps me and my coworkers in the Department of Public Health up at night. I think a lot about how we can address food apartheid throughout the city. 

Right now, I’m on a listening tour. I am meeting people in their neighborhoods. I am hearing the challenges they are facing and the successes they’re celebrating. The most recent conversations I had were with local growers.

The key thing we talked about is land ownership. They wanted to make sure that there was transparency about the process of ownership, especially with city land, to make sure that people can really own the means of production. 

It is part of the reason why my role was created – to bridge the gaps across different departments that are working on food systems work but also listen to residents in the community and tie it all together. 

What’s piqued your interest so far? 

I’m very interested in community-led and owned models. Having power be with the people to produce their own food is exactly what I’d like to see in Cleveland. The Central Kinsman Wellness Collective, which is a group of folks in the Central Kinsman neighborhood who are working to build a food co-op in the area, has been thinking how this model can benefit the city as a whole. 

Can you get this done in a grant position funded for two years? 

I do feel the weight of that timeline, and I’m hoping to conduct a community food assessment for the City of Cleveland to get a comprehensive landscape of the food system here and identify what interventions, policies and programs the city can implement and support in the future. I’d like to see Cleveland eventually have a food action plan. The issues that create barriers to food access and hunger may be hard to address in just two years. But, having a strategy can help people live their best, most healthy lives.

What have you learned in your previous roles that will help you in this job? 

I realized from my time at the food bank that it is not enough to just have emergency food programs to feed people in need. It is crucial, but it is not sustainable. What we need to be thinking about is more proactive solutions.

When I worked for the Center for Good Food Purchasing, I was in the same rooms as members of coalition groups who advocate for things like fair wages and home-grown food in their schools, prisons and hospitals. I met different people who worked in the environment, food production and workforce industry. They were really trying to make a change in their region. I understood that tackling these big monster issues means working together.

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Health Reporter (she/her)
Candice, a Cleveland Documenter since 2020, has been a freelance writer whose reporting and digital media work have appeared in The Daily Beast, VICE, Cleveland Magazine and elsewhere. She has written about health, equity and social justice.