East Cleveland, Ohio—Barack Obama got an ovation when he recently stood in a Chicago pulpit and scolded parents for giving their children cold Popeye's chicken for breakfast, according to The New York Times.
But a short drive around Euclid and Superior Avenues, a major intersection in this Cleveland area suburb, would reveal why fast-food leftovers take the place of bacon and eggs.
There are two independent grocery stores, but neither is as large as a chain store. They are surrounded by a host of fast-food outlets—White Castle, Church's Chicken, Pizza Hut, McDonald's—as well as a Chinese carry-out and a convenience store at a nearby gas station.
The intersection is in the heart of a "food desert," a community without a major grocery store and with an abundance of fast-food outlets.
The term, "food desert," was coined in the 1990s to describe the plight of rural communities in the United Kingdom. In the United States, though, it's applied to impoverished, often inner-city communities. Because residents have a hard time getting good produce and other healthy food at an affordable price, they dine on what's readily available. Nutritionists say it's usually high-calorie, high-sodium foods that contribute to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
If a suburb could be called impoverished, East Cleveland can.
According to the latest census figures, the median family income is about $26,000—a little more than half of the national figure of $50,000. And 28 percent of the city's families live below the poverty line compared to 9 percent of families nationally. The obvious solution would be to attract more grocery chains to these communities. But major chains prefer to build in more prosperous communities with space large enough to accommodate a store that is at least 25,000 square feet.
So another, more innovative approach has also taken hold around the nation. Organizations that advocate sustainable agriculture are teaching inner-city and low-income folks to grow their own produce, organically if possible. The trend has led to a rise in community raised-bed gardens.
The community garden, of course, is the traditional way of growing vegetables by digging in the soil. It has become popular in urban areas, like Detroit, which is riddled with vacant lots from abandoned or destroyed houses.
A raised-bed garden is created on top of the soil, and no tilling is required. If the ground is contaminated, it can be covered with a barrier that provides a foundation for layers of organic matter. This method of building a garden from the ground up goes by lots of names: sheet mulching or lasagna gardening.
The Food Project, a Boston-based organization that promotes sustainable agriculture, has taught the technique to Cape Verdean immigrants who were gardening in the city's Roxbury and Dorchester neighborhoods. There, lead in the soil was leaching into the produce and poisoning the neighborhood children, explained Jen James, the organization's communications director.
Asphalt gardening goes even further: A garden can be constructed on a vacant lot with a concrete surface. Biodegradable garbage and trash can be incorporated into the plot. Volunteers and employees built a demonstration garden on the lawn at Huron Hospital, which is located in East Cleveland.
No land was tilled nor was any sod broken. Instead, the garden rests on huge sheets of cardboard that would have normally gone into the hospital's dumpster.
The sheets were laid into a rectangle about 10 feet by 30 feet. On the sheets went layer, upon layer, of shredded newspaper until the base was two feet deep. Then came the organic matter: purchased soil and vegetable scraps salvaged from the hospital's kitchens.
Earthworms were thrown into the mix, to aerate the dirt and provide nutrients. Finally, on the top layer, the plants went into the "ground." Straw bales around the perimeter keep everything in place. Vermin won't be a problem, according to the gardeners, because the scraps are buried deep into the soil.
"We're taking scraps from institutions and helping to complete the waste-nutrition cycle," said Maurice Small, who teaches the technique for the New Agrarian Center, an organization promoting sustainable agriculture in northeastern Ohio. Small supervised the building of the garden at the hospital.
"We use [the scraps]. We're planting food on top of it, and it goes back into the hospital," he said.
Sandi Liptow, the director of food services at the hospital, hopes the garden will inspire neighborhood folks to plant a vegetable—or two or three. "We hope people can see that you can do this anywhere. We want people to take care of themselves."
Check out the construction of an asphalt garden in a Cleveland neighborhood.
Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs is a freelance writer who lives in South Euclid, Ohio. She is also the author of the genealogical memoir "Claiming Kin: Confronting the History of an African-American Family."