East Cleveland Residents Are Building a Closed Loop Economy

"We’re building an intentionally regenerative and circular economy that understands the value of place, the environment and people — and is willing to say we don’t need to go bigger.”

(Photos courtesy Loiter)

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Meet Wake Robin Fermented Foods, a small company based in the city of East Cleveland, Ohio, focused on local sustainability. About 90% of its vegetables are sourced from farms in Northeast Ohio; all vegetable waste goes to compost; paper, cardboard and metal is reused or recycled; fermented products are packaged in reusable glass jars.

Wake Robin would be impressive if it stood on its own, but it’s part of a larger vision to establish a closed loop, community-owned supply chain in the three square miles comprising East Cleveland. The organization leading the work is called Loiter. Its goal is to address a crisis across U.S. cities — the devaluation of African American neighborhoods, community assets and gathering places — through hyper-local, community-driven investment into one of Ohio’s poorest cities.

“East Cleveland has no grocery store, no cafes, no restaurants, no farmer’s market, no bank … the belief is that we can build something here from the ground up,” says Loiter co-founder Ismail Samad. (Editor’s note: The city has at least one farmer’s market, Coit Road Farmers Market.)

“And we’re not building an extractive capitalist city. We’re building an intentionally regenerative and circular economy that understands the value of place, the environment and people — and is willing to say we don’t need to go bigger.”

Samad was born and raised in East Cleveland; he opened a cafe in the city at age 23. After moving to the northeast, his work encompassed the farm to table movement, nutritional health, food insecurity, wasted and surplus food. As a Common Future fellow, he began thinking about the possibilities of a regenerative ecosystem in his hometown.

After the pandemic brought him back to his hometown, he asked his sister, Alima Samad, to join his vision. “I’ve always wanted to understand economics and went to business school,” she says. “My drive has been how to bring that information to communities of color, so we can understand how to create our own access to wealth.”

They co-founded Loiter in 2021. Loiter stands for “Love, Opportunity, Investment, Transformation, Equity, Restitution and Reparations.” It also plays off the racist history of loitering laws, which marked Black people’s public presence as threatening and even criminal.

At its inception, Ismail Samad considered Cleveland’s history as the “jewel of the midwest” and home of the Rockefellers. “There were huge, insular wealth holdings — I started thinking about recreating that boom of modern-day capitalists,” he says. “Cleveland is now the most cash poor city in the state, because all the anchors left. So I started thinking about what happens when anchors leave and what it means to be an anchor.”

He inherently understood that “we need to create our own institutions and community anchors” to refute the extractive capitalism that decimated the city. He felt East Cleveland — a city with a population less than 18,000 — was a powerful place to start. “I felt municipalism could work … There are five council people, we could work together to build a values-based city.”

(Illustration courtesy Loiter)

Loiter sees challenges as opportunities. There were no low-cost or free community composting options available in East Cleveland, which meant an opportunity to build political will to amend the ordinances to allow community composting and increase education around its role in a healthy local economy. The housing crisis increased blight and vacant properties — places that Loiter sees as future farms, businesses and community hubs. With the local bank reducing customers to only ATM services, Loiter works with allies like Potlikker Capital – a community-governed charitable loan fund for farmers of color – to advise on the establishment of the Loiter Bout Time Fund to kick off a long-term capital deployment strategy.

To address the lack of community anchors, Loiter has site control of a 3.5 acre, long-abandoned car lot along the main drag of Euclid Avenue. It’s been utilized for food trucks, pop-up shops and a farmer’s market. This summer the Loiter East Cleveland Farmers Market opened in July for its second year in the row.

Loiter’s first business purchase was 10-year-old Wake Robin Fermented Foods, in partnership with the nonprofit Food Depot to Health, as a strategy to ensure predictable revenue streams to East Cleveland urban farmers.

Loiter is working with the Chocolate Rebellion, a project of the Alliance for Rural Communities to support African and Caribbean cocoa farmers. Samad felt there was an opportunity to bring this $110 billion dollar a year industry to East Cleveland and connect its majority Black residents to jobs supporting ethically sourced chocolate from black cocoa farmers around the world. Loiter broke ground on a production center in East Cleveland, where craft chocolate will be made from cocoa sourced by Chocolate Rebellion for public consumption locally.

Loiter plans to invest in resident-owned land cooperatives and micro-enterprises that will grow and process sustainable tea and honey. They’ll recruit community-eligible residents to join, allowing them to reap the benefits of earning additional income from their land and property, and provide technical assistance. The goal is to create a line of tea and honey that’s generating passive income to local growers.

The organization is also in discussion with the Cuyahoga Land Bank to open a cafe as part of the Circle East District neighborhood development project, which includes residential and commercial spaces. “It will be a place to seed some of our ideals and just make people feel comfortable,” Alima says.

These food-based investments play to a larger vision for East Cleveland local food sustainability: The community has ownership in the land where the food comes from, the plant where it’s processed and the retail where it’s sold. Alima’s focus is to provide wealth building and investment classes and technical support, so local residents can literally buy into this emerging economy.

There’s a culture element, too. In 2021, Loiter kicked off its first speaker event, called Critical Community Conversations, in partnership with East Cleveland Public Library. Samad co-hosts a podcast called Loitering & Unarmed: Honest Conversations About Change, featuring guests from East Cleveland and elsewhere. The organization is also developing a children’s book called “Jamilah: Finding Beauty in East Cleveland.”

“There’s this clear vision,” says Donna Dabbs, executive director of the Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival and Loiter’s voice and culture advisor.

“This space on Euclid Avenue for community events, the businesses that have been purchased, the collaborations that are happening, there’s so much going on physically for the community to show up,” she says. “There’s a difference from projects that are talked about for years and nothing happens.”

Alima and Ismail realize it’s a big vision that can’t be forced into a community battling systemic poverty. “Closing the wealth gap, creating new forms of investment and equity, we’re trying to make these ideas tangible for people to see, touch, taste and feel,” Alima says.

“I want to be able to say that we own the narrative, while owning assets, while owning businesses that will be the future anchors of a city-wide change,” Ismail says. “We can be part of the change that we’ve been longing for.”

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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