Amid the takeout joints and convenience stores on Kinsman Road, Marion “Anita” Gardner plans to raise goats, chickens, apples, pears, blueberries, and strawberries – and to give away the yield to all comers.
“Guess what?” says the outspoken activist, former Ward 4 councilwoman, and founding head of the Concerned Citizens Community Council of Mt. Pleasant. “We’re trying to put a real working farm right on the corner of Kinsman!”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has named the Concerned Citizens’ half-acre plot at 13611 Kinsman as one of the nation’s 17 flagship People’s Gardens. The Citizens’ volunteers already raise cabbage, collards, tomatoes, and more in a garden and a hoophouse and set it out on the porch – along with donated nonperishable foods – for passersby to take.
The department has given the Citizens $25,900. The money has helped them build two more hoophouses and a chicken coop for use year-round. The chickens will be supplied by Ward 1 Councilman Joe Jones, who breeds them. Gardner has newly dubbed the site Crooked Branch Farm, in honor of a craggy tree there.
Gardner, 70, is a retired machinist and the survivor of 15 surgeries for a brain defect. She goes mostly by ‘Nita or moonpuppy, the latter all lower case. She spent a few months last year as Ward 4’s interim councilwoman and says she was frustrated by City Hall’s inertia. She always speaks her mind, often with interjections like “There you go!” or “You know what I’m saying?”
Gardner founded the Concerned Citizens 20 years ago and still leads it. Volunteers from Mt. Pleasant and the suburbs help out, as does Envision Cleveland, a Christian nonprofit.
Gardner offers vocational training, summer camp, informational booklets, free feminine products, and whatever other kinds of help seem needed. She thinks a city’s a good place for a farm. She says the neighborhood has lots of junk food and little fresh, local produce. “Too many people have no idea where their food comes from, and how important it is to have fresh fruit,” she said.
According to the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission, 59 percent of Clevelanders live in a food desert. That means a poor neighborhood more than half a mile from any grocery store of at least 10,000 square feet, and parts of Mount Pleasant meet this definition of a food desert. Growing food on small neighborhood farms like Crooked Branch can help increase access to fresh, healthy foods.
President Lincoln founded the USDA and nicknamed it “The People’s Department.” In 2009, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack planted a People’s Garden outside the department’s headquarters in D.C. This year, during his second stint as secretary, Vilsack has given grants to other sites around the country to become flagship People’s Gardens. The Concerned Citizens applied and became the only flagship in Ohio.
Vilsack is also inviting other community gardens and urban farms to register as People’s Gardens if they, like the flagships, meet certain criteria, such as practicing conservation, feeding neighbors, and educating them about raising and preparing healthy food. These gardens won’t get money for registering but may apply for other grants. As of Sept. 28, 11 such gardens had signed up in Ohio and 281 elsewhere.
Envision Cleveland’s director, Tom Schmidt, says of Crooked Branch Farm, “It’s going to be a conversation starter for people walking and driving by. We want to give them an awareness of fresh food and vegetables they can grow in their own yards.”
USDA conservationist John Wilson says, “Marion Gardner has been a tireless advocate for Mount Pleasant. The People’s Garden investment is only going to build off of the foundation that they’ve worked so hard to establish.”
Gardner’s already eyeing some nearby lots with decrepit homes for more farmland.
You can reach the Concerned Citizens at 13611 Kinsman Ave., by phone at 216-215-0801, or by email at [email protected]