One of the largest local food initiatives in the country is based in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood, where it is working to provide high quality produce to the local region, as well as build wealth in the surrounding community.
Green City Growers, which was established in December 2012, serves to provide quality products to its customers, while also providing career opportunities to those living in the surrounding neighborhood.
The greenhouse is the largest food production greenhouse in a core urban area in the United States, and one of the largest food initiatives in the country. The year-round hydroponic greenhouse has 3.25 acres of growing area under roof and is able to have consistent harvests every day of the year.
The Mission Goes Beyond Quality Produce
With few employment opportunities in the Central neighborhood, Green City Growers has a mission of creating jobs and building financial assets of the residents of the underserved neighborhood.
Employees who are hired from the neighborhood become employee-owners of the cooperative business and share in the profits. In addition, they are provided with training and skill development and are encouraged to become more knowledgeable about the industry and build a long-term career with the greenhouse.
Brushawn Fletcher, a harvester at the greenhouse, has been employed by the company since June 2013. He found out about the job through Towards Employment, an employment service for disadvantaged adults in Cleveland. He didn’t have any experience in the growing field, but in less than a year, he has learned a lot.
“It’s a great work environment. Part of our mission statement is to embrace change and be diverse,” Fletcher says. “I’ve learned a lot of things I never thought I would learn as far as plants, hydroponics and packaging.”
Fletcher’s job entails retrieving lettuce from its pond, then cutting and packaging it.
“It’s a great opportunity. It teaches us to work together as a team and accomplish goals,” Fletcher says. “Every day is different; the work is different. I like having different days. It gives great fulfillment.”
Fletcher says the profit sharing aspect of employment at Green City Growers encourages him and his co-workers to find ways to work better and more efficiently.
“There’s a lot of reward here. We definitely want to be successful every day,” he says. “If anyone can find a more efficient way, why not do it? That’s what I do.”
Currently, the company’s goal is to produce 40,000 heads of lettuce per week, Fletcher says.
“We’re looking to really pick up business here,” he says. “I’m looking forward to the challenges.”
Challenges may be on the horizon, as Green City Growers is not yet operating at capacity and plans to eventually plant and harvest more and grow its customer base, says Joy Pellek, director of sales and marketing. Right now, the greenhouse employs between 22 and 25 people, but Pellek expects the greenhouse to employ 35 to 40 when at capacity.
Green City Growers is part of the Evergreen Cooperative, an effort by the Cleveland Foundation, Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals to transform the neighborhood in the University Circle area, known as the Central neighborhood. Evergreen Cooperative uses the purchasing power of the aforementioned institutions to build worker-owned businesses in the neighborhood in order to build wealth and transform the lives of those that live there.
Green City Growers is one of three companies started by the Evergreen Cooperative. According Pellek, the idea for the greenhouse came out of the recognition that the neighborhood was made up of lots of housing but was lacking in food sources.
Green City Is Focusing On What It Can Do Best
The food produced by the greenhouse is grown as naturally as possible without being organic, says Pellek.
“People want to buy local, but it’s difficult for some of the local establishments to have the necessary level of safey,” says Pellek.
Green City Growers is able to grow crops safely and provide for local customers within 48 hours of harvest. In addition, the company donates 1 percent of crops to the Cleveland Foodbank for distribution in the Central neighborhood.
Since opening, Green City Growers has mostly focused on trialing different varieties in order to determine what it could grow extremely well.
“We’ve really spent a lot of time refining product mix,” Pellek says.
The result has been excellent quality food with superior food service ratings, she says.
The grower currently produces bibb lettuce, butter lettuce, green leaf lettuce, a variety of leaf lettuces, upland cress and basil. The products are distributed to retailers and food service distributors located primarily in a 50 miles radius of Cleveland.
While the company’s main mission is to service the immediate area, it is willing to serve places outside the 50-mile radius, such as Detroit, Toledo, Pittsburgh and Columbus.
“If there’s a need and somebody’s interested, we will service them as well,” Pellek says.
The last year has also been spent learning about the Northeast Ohio climate, Pellek says. Varying levels of sunlight has had an impact on determining which products are used in the greenhouse and has led to the use of grow lights in the greenhouse — a unique characteristic of Green City Growers.
“Even greenhouses that have less sunlight, some of them don’t have grow lights the way we have them,” Pellek says. “It’s a nice benefit to our facility.”