Blogs from Brad Masi Tue, 03 Jan 2017 13:18:36 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb For the Love of Food - A Cinematic Portrayal of Oberlin’s Local Food System FTLOF banner

Join the members of the Oberlin Slow Food Chapter and the Oberlin Farmers Market for a special presentation of For the Love of Food on Saturday, September 8th at 1pm at the Oberlin Public Library. This screening concludes the Oberlin Project’s summer film series.


I credit my experience at Oberlin College for cultivating my interest in local food systems. As a student, I first learned about opportunities to connect local food systems with community sustainability through courses in the Environmental Studies Program. Connecting with other students in the classes, we decided to apply our classroom learning to the community, leveraging our membership in the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association (OSCA) to start transitioning coop purchases to local farms in our backyard, beginning in 1990.

In many ways, OSCA presented an ideal forum for a local food purchasing effort. As students, we were involved directly in decisions affecting the eight dining cooperatives that OSCA managed. As member-owners, we had the ability to change purchasing decisions, having real financial and environmental impacts on our local community.

Last year, I had the privilege of working with local film-maker and Oberlin graduate Mika Johnson (OC ’00) to produce a documentary film about Oberlin’s local food efforts. As a part of a broader assessment of Oberlin’s local food system sponsored by the Oberlin Project, For the Love of Food chronicles the emergence of Oberlin’s local food efforts. Filmed in and around Oberlin, the film mixes striking agrarian landscapes with a diverse set of local heroes who each, in their own small ways, have woven together a rich and varied local food web. The film looks at examples of backyard homesteading, community gardening, farm-to-table initiatives in businesses and institutions, and the new culture of entrepreneurship around local food systems. In these economically depressing times, the film explores how one town’s efforts to engage local food systems contribute to a more resilient local economy and a more vibrant community.

As film-makers, it was great to turn the camera on our own community. We practiced what I like to call “emergent film-making”. Rather than laboring to find stories that matched a pre-determined narrative, we allowed the narrative to reveal itself through the stories and perspectives of Oberlin residents, farmers, entrepreneurs, dining managers, students, and retirees. The film by no means should be viewed as a complete portrayal of Oberlin’s local food efforts. For every story included, there are many more that we did not have space or time to include. The film provides a small set of openings to a much deeper and broader community effort, one that has changed and evolved even in the past year since much of the film was shot.

For the Love of Food also reflects an emerging form of “Community-Based Cinema”. The film captures a mosaic of perspectives told from the point of view of community members themselves. The production crew included college students, alumnae, residents, and high school students, consisting of both professional and non-professional participants. The film is intended to be shared in local venues where people can be inspired by what students, residents and businesses in their own community are doing. Community-based cinema stretches the film experience from passive viewing in a dark room to a tool for community engagement.  Mika Johnson’s experience with the production of the Amerikans, a series of portraits of colorful local characters residing in Northeast Ohio, presents another example of community-based cinema in Oberlin.

Overall, community-based cinema stretches the film experience from a passive viewing in a dark room to a tool for community engagement.

Join the members of the Oberlin Slow Food Chapter and the Oberlin Farmers Market for a special presentation of For the Love of Food on Saturday, September 8th at 1pm at the Oberlin Public Library. This screening concludes the Oberlin Project’s summer film series.

]]> (Brad Masi) Local Foods Wed, 05 Sep 2012 21:43:12 +0000
Polycultures - Food Where We Live The word “polycultures” describes farm systems that include a number of diverse crops growing together. A common example of a polyculture system is the “three sisters”, a growing system that includes corn, beans, and squash growing together in the same spot. The corn plant grows quickly, providing support for vining bean plants. Squash plants have shallow roots and wide leaves that produce shade and limit competition from weeds. The roots of bean plants fix nitrogen in the soil, adding fertility and providing extra nitrogen that corn plants need so survive. All three of the plants provide a yield of food. They also provide complementary services to support each other.

Polycultures can also be used to describe the social movement that has formed around the support of local food systems, including the collaboration of diverse communities, both rural and urban, around the provision of local food.

This week, the Oberlin Project will be featuring the film PolyCultures- Food Where We Live. The film resulted from a collaborative effort between the New Agrarian Center, where I served as director, and LESS Productions, a film company in Cleveland. The film was an official selection of the 2009 Cleveland International Film Festival and also played at six additional film festivals around the world, from northern California to Thialand. 



Even though we produced the film only three years ago, it already serves as a retro-spective of local food systems efforts. It is quite amazing to see how far things have since evolved in Oberlin, Cleveland, and other communities, featured in the film, in the intervening three years.

PolyCultures presents an alternative approach to film, what I like to call emergent film-making. Rather than beginning with a pre-determined script or treatment, we decided to talk to a wide variety of people to see what was motivating their involvement in local food systems. The journey involved talking to some national local food advocates, including authors Michael Pollen (Omnivore’s Dilema) and Mark Winne (Closing the Food Gap) as well as homegrown advocates, including our own David Orr and Michael Ruhlman (author of Soul of the Chef).

The film also captures the grassroots nature of the local food movement, finding a number of engaging stories from local farmers, urban gardeners, students, businesses, and community organizers.

In all, the film shows a growing, interconnected food web that connects communities throughout Northeast Ohio. The film features six inter-linked “plots,” both the plots in a garden and the plots of a story. The plots will take you from the Jones Farm in Oberlin to inner-city Cleveland, rural farms around Wooster, to a unique market garden that utilizes beer waste from the Great Lakes Brewery to grow vegetables for the brewery’s kitchen.

The film demonstrates the intersection of a number of social challenges that can be productively addressed through the re-organization of our food system. Some of the topics include climate change, health and nutrition in urban neighborhoods that lack access to healthy foods, and the growth of small and large businesses around the provision of local food.

Come check out the film at the Oberlin Public Library from 2-4pm on Thursday, August 30th or Saturday September, 1st. The screening on September 1st will include a discussion of the film.

Also, check out a more home-grown version of PolyCultures on Saturday, September 8th at the Oberlin Public Library at 1pm when we screen For the Love of Food which chronicles local food efforts right here in Oberlin.

]]> (Brad Masi) Local Foods Wed, 29 Aug 2012 20:08:16 +0000
From Waste to Food - Thinking in Multiples of Four food to waste


In a scene reminiscent of the growth of urban agriculture, a group of about 50 people gathered on the lawn of the former Huron Road Hospital in East Cleveland in 2007 to install a garden. One uninitiated to the unique culture of urban farming might wonder why people were so gleefully spreading out piles of garbage all over the hospital lawn. One might even be tempted to report the violation to the local health department, only to find out that the band of children, doctors, hospital staff, neighbors, and fellow urban gardeners were spreading garbage all over the lawn with the full sanction of the county health department. They were turning compostable waste from the hospital into soil to support a garden.

The garden installation took place as a part of City Fresh, an initiative that begun in 2005, as a part of the New Agrarian Center, to help establish healthy food access in urban neighborhoods. A study conducted by the Cleveland Food Policy Coalition indicated that the average Clevelander travels four times further distance to reach a full-service grocer than a fast food establishment. This impacts public health, causing a wide-range of diet-related challenges, from diabetes to heart disease. Local food systems, whether in the form of farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture programs like City Fresh, or urban gardening can help improve access to healthy food in a neighborhood.

In addition to organizing a share distribution program, City Fresh worked with Ohio State University Extension to begin a market garden training program, which would encourage the cultivation of vacant lots in the city and improve the local food supply.

The garden installation in East Cleveland was headed by Maurice Small, an avid urban gardener and local food activist who helped establish the City Fresh program, A modern-day Johnny Appleseed, Maurice has facilitated the establishment of hundreds of gardens across Northeast Ohio over the past 20 years.

Maurice mastered the art of healthy soil development by leveraging an abundant asset common to all urban centers- organic waste. In the weeks leading up to the garden establishment at the hospital, Maurice worked with cafeteria staff to have them collect food scraps from kitchen prep waste. He also worked with the administrative offices to collect shredded office paper (excluding any carbon-copy paper) and with the janitorial staff to have cardboard broken down and stockpiled. Theses wastes became the key ingredients for a lasagna style raised bed installation.

Volunteers laid out a layer of cardboard at the bottom of the garden and then spread shredded office paper and recycled newspaper over the cardboard.  This adds carbon to the garden, which then becomes organic matter, an important component of healthy soil that helps with nutrient retention and transfer.

As the volunteers finished laying down the cardboard and paper, Maurice shared his approval, leaping headfirst into the pile of shredded paper and paddling his way to the other side of the bed.

“It’s so beautiful!” he quipped, as he crawled out of the bed to the laughter and approval of the on-looking volunteers.


See Maurice Small swim in compost as community volunteers install a hospital garden. To see more clips about compost efforts large and small, including the George Jones Farm, click here


He instructed the gardeners to mix food waste into the pile and to coat the top of the bed with a thin layer of topsoil. After about two hours of work, volunteers planted the beds, providing a source of vegetables as well as nutritional education for residents and low-income patients of the hospital.

Two stacks of straw bales lined the raised bed; helping to keep the organic materials contained while the plants became established. Leaning against a rusty garden fork, his main implement for mass creation, Maurice told me about the four cycles of straw.

He explained how the straw began its life as wheat, producing high-calorie seeds harvested by the farmer. The farmer then baled the waste-straw stems remaining after harvest. The farmer used some of the bales to insulate the perimeter of his house to keep it warm for the winter. Maurice picked-up the bales after they were gathered in the spring from around the farmers house and delivered them to Cleveland to line the perimeter of a garden. As the walls of the raised beds decompose, the straw can be used for mulch or to make compost.

That stuck with me. The four cycles of straw- wheat, insulation, raised bed, compost. A couple of years later, I replicated this process myself, acquiring straw bales from a farm near Oberlin to insulate an exposed breakfast nook in my house. After winter, I busted up the bales to make compost and mulch for my gardens.

As I thought back six years ago to the garden installation in East Cleveland, I realized that it contained a lesson instructive for the local food movement. Cities consume large amounts of food and generate large amounts of organic wastes. In a natural ecosystem, waste does not exist. Everything is continuously transformed through cycles of growth and decay. In that sense, urban waste can become an important input to support local agricultural production, reducing landfill burdens and retaining all of the value that those organic materials contain.

The Oberlin community has a number of opportunities to connect its waste streams to local agriculture. Like the straw bales that Maurice described, waste can be transformed to become productive inputs, including organic matter, nutrients, or even energy. As rising fuel prices and the increasing scarcity of common fertilizers like phosphorus continue to mount, we can look to generate more value from our own waste streams while reducing input costs for local farmers.

Food waste can be fed to pigs, loaded into a bio-digester to produce energy, or composted through a variety of methods to retain nutrients and organic matter. Organic materials can be composted on the scale of a backyard garden or processed through a large, commercial-scale facility. Each process produces the same values: healthier plants, improved soil, and happier people.

As Oberlin continues to grow its local food economy, we can find many valuable assets within our community. Instead of devoting a great deal of energy and time to haul away and bury our organic waste, it can go through several cycles of transformation, creating value and even potential livelihoods along the way. The food scraps of today become the delicious produce that we pick-up at the farmers market tomorrow.

And with each turn of the cycle, the fertility and quality of our local soil improves.

See the Huron Road Hospital story and many other inspiring stories about local food efforts in Cleveland, Oberlin, and across Northeast Ohio, at the Oberlin Project’s screening of PolyCultures- Food Where We Live, an official selection of the 2009 Cleveland International Film Festival and five other festivals around the world. The film screens at 2:00pm on August 30 and again at 2:00pm September 1st at the Oberlin Public Library. Click here to see a trailer for the film.

]]> (Brad Masi) Local Foods Wed, 22 Aug 2012 18:56:45 +0000
Fresh Approach to Localizing Food at the Oberlin Early Childhood Center  


A local food system provides a number of opportunities to grow a more sustainable local economy. Presently, the majority of food consumed in Oberlin is grown, processed, and transported outside of Ohio. A localization of the food supply helps to more directly connect local farmers, local businesses, and the institutions, restaurants, or households that consume local food. Buying local helps retain dollars in the local economy, reducing the environmental and economic costs of long-distance shipment while creating linkages between diverse communities.

This is the first in a series of blog entries I will be doing to highlight some of the innovative ways Oberlin and other communities in Ohio are leveraging local food systems to create local economies that integrate ecological sustainability, community vitality, and health.

Local food systems offer a more grassroots approach to economic development. Conventional economic development focuses mostly on attracting outside investments to grow industries or businesses that primarily focus on exported products that feed the larger global economy. A local food system, by contrast, begins by identifying the hidden assets within any community and growing more robust networks and collaborative projects between diverse players, from rural farmers to institutional dining programs. 


To see other stories about Dave Sokoll and his efforts at the Oberlin Early Childhood Center, visit by clicking here.

The Oberlin Early Childhood Center (OECC) provides one innovative example of how a small meal program at a pre-school can foster stronger connections with local farmers while engaging children in healthier eating options and the growth of their own food.  Dave Sokoll, a graduate of Oberlin College, recently became the head chef for the OECC. Having been involved in local food efforts as an Oberlin student, Dave held a number of jobs, after graduating, that continued his local food interests. He became a trucker and logistics coordinator for City Fresh, connecting neighborhoods and local farmers in Lorain County. He also worked with artisan cheese producers, selling local cheeses at the Oberlin Farmers Market and worked with a group of high school and college students to start the Oberlin High School Farm Collaborative.

Sokoll characterized Oberlin’s local food scene as “thriving.” “As a student, there’s tons of options from clubs and gardens in town and coops to cook your own local food. As a college student, it’s really easy to get connected to that.”

Sokoll’s trajectory following graduation was built upon many of the experiences that he had as a student. When he became the head chef of food services at the OECC, he brought with him both his experiences and the network connections that he formed with local farmers and food businesses. Much of the produce utilized in the OECC came from City Fresh, an initiative of the New Agrarian Center, which facilitates connections between local farmers and urban neighborhoods in six cities of Northeast Ohio.

While Sokoll had a lot of experience distributing local food, he had less culinary experience. When he was selling local cheese at the Oberlin Farmers’ Market, he connected with Brian Donnely, who was selling vegetables from a small market garden at his house. Donnely is also a chef at Diso’s Bistro in Lorain. For the past year, Donnely has volunteered one day a week with the OECC, working with Sokoll to grow his culinary skills while coming up with creative recipes that make local food appealing to young children.  

As any parent knows, children can be fussy eaters and the new recipes that they were introduced were not always met with enthusiasm. Sokoll recalls when he introduced a cold gauspacho soup to the children. “They were so excited when I walked in and said, ‘hey we’re going to try something new… and then slowly the ripple of confusion about what it was went through the class… one girl said that she liked it and one kid said he doesn’t try any new ‘dips’.”

Sokoll remains undeterred, however. He recalls a conversation with a physician friend of his who mentioned that it may take 10-15 exposures to unfamiliar food items before children start to make significant changes in their diets.

Sokoll’s story contains a lot of valuable lessons for how local food systems grow. First, his experiences at Oberlin College demonstrate how learning institutions can directly engage students with local food efforts in the community, providing hands-on experiences that can later grow into jobs or enterprises after graduation.

Second, his story reveals the importance of uncovering “hidden assets” in the community to make up for gaps in knowledge or experience. His connection with Chef Brian Donnely allowed him to bridge the lack of experience he had with cooking for groups of children.

Finally, his experience shows the number of pathways that even a small organization like a pre-school can take to transition into a local food system. In addition to meal plans that favor local food, Sokoll, along with community and student volunteers have established new gardens as well as a small greenhouse to involve kids more directly in growing their own food. The harvest from the garden is utilized both in the meals at the OECC as well as sales of products like seedlings, providing revenue to support the garden project.

Learn more about the OECC and other innovations around local foods in the Oberlin community at a screening of For the Love of Food on Saturday, September 8 from 2-4pm at the Oberlin Public Library. For more information on the Oberlin Project film series, click here.


]]> (Brad Masi) Local Foods Tue, 31 Jul 2012 15:51:06 +0000
Is Local Food Energy Efficient? Food is energy. Not much thought is given to it, but every time that we eat, our bodies convert food calories into a fuel that powers everything that we do, from typing at a computer, making art, walking or biking into town, fixing a house, or digging a garden bed.

Over the past 10,000 years, humans have developed agriculture -- the cultivation of land and active management of crops and animals to increase the food-calories available for growing human populations.

The productivity of agriculture is often measured by how many calories of food one farmer can produce through their daily labor. Selective plant breeding, harnessing of energy and technology, and the development of artificial fertilizers allowed a farmer to turn the oatmeal, ham, or eggs that they had for breakfast into an enormous yield of food. The industrial revolution and availability of cheap fossil-fuel energy, allowed for more people to be fed by fewer and fewer farmers.

While impressive, the foundation of this model, cheap oil and a stable climate, are unraveling. Fossil fuel is limited and we already see a correlation between rising energy prices and increasing food prices. Additionally, fossil energy transfers carbon from deep within the ground into the atmosphere, leading to increased atmospheric warming and destabilization of the climate. It is no accident that 10,000 years of relative climatic stability produced the conditions favorable to the emergence of agriculture.

As early as the 1990’s, David Pimentel with the University of Cornell noted that our modern industrial food system requires 10 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food. Farm production consumes about 1/3 of these calories, mostly embodied in the chemical fertilizers and other manufactured inputs that require large amounts of energy to produce. However, the remaining 2/3 of these calories are spent processing, preserving, refrigerating, packaging, and transporting food an average of 1,500-2,500 miles to reach us.

This energy trail produces a corresponding carbon trail. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, agriculture emits around 13.5% of the carbon in the atmosphere. When you consider the whole food chain from farm to plate, almost 1/3 of global carbon emissions can be traced back to food, its production, processing, transport, consumption, and waste.

The Oberlin Project is a collaborative effort to help the City of Oberlin and Oberlin College to meet their goals of climate neutrality. The development of local food systems is an important part of the picture.   Luckily, there is a strong history of food localization to build on.  In 1990, the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association (OSCA), a student-run dining and housing organization, initiated a local food purchasing program. Since that first local food initiative, OSCA, the college’s dining services, and local restaurants like the Black River Café and Agave collectively circulate more than $1 million in the local economy by purchasing local foods.

How can the average Oberlinian get in on the local foods scene?  The Oberlin Farmers Market, open on Saturdays from 9am – 1pm in front of the Oberlin Public Library, offers a wide-range of locally grown foods. The season opens this Saturday, May 19th.  The Oberlin Public Library will also be hosting a screening of the documentary For the Love of Food, which profiles Oberlin’s local food efforts at noon and 1:30 on May 19th.

City Fresh (, an initiative operated by the New Agrarian Center, is another way to buy local produce.  Participants can purchase weekly shares of produce that are conveniently delivered in Oberlin.  This year, the City Fresh distribution will take place at the Christ Episcopal Church on Thursday afternoons. Now is the time to sign up for your share!

You can also grow your own food -- either in pots, in your yard, or through Zion CDC’s community garden.  It’s hard to beat sitting down to a meal that includes things you grew yourself.

Food plays a fundamental role in the life of our community, affecting the health of our bodies, encouraging social interaction around meals, and impacting our economy. As just one small town, Oberlin spends more than $17 million each year on food.  Imagine if most of that money remained in our community! We can leverage this annual spending to reduce our collective consumption of fossil fuel while also increasing community interactions and growing our local economy.  That’s a good deal for everyone.

]]> (Brad Masi) Energy Matters Thu, 17 May 2012 18:17:35 +0000