Our story begins with the North End Community Improvement Collaborative (NECIC) Executive Director Deanna West-Torrence.
West-Torrence was living in Mansfield and wanted to improve the area for her children and the residents, so she decided to become a city council member. As she worked, she began to notice a connection between health and place in Mansfield, namely that Mansfield was a food desert. West-Torrence was specifically interested in the North End, which was comprised of a predominantly black population. She noticed that, while many plans for community development were being discussed, none were actually coming to fruition. She ended up creating the NECIC to address some of these issues, which was then endorsed by the Mansfield City Council. The NECIC realized that they needed to focus their efforts on providing fresh and healthy food to the North End, but they weren't quite sure how to go about doing it.
Shortly thereafter, West-Torrence met Dr. Kent "Kip" Curtis, Associate Professor of History at the Ohio State University. Curtis's research focuses primarily on environmental studies with emphases on food studies and urban agriculture. He suggested to West-Torrence that since the current infrastructure for sustainable food sources was not working for the North End, the NECIC should invest in building a new infrastructure that would work for them. As Curtis developed working relationships with West-Torrence and NECIC member Walter Bonham, he introduced a blueprint for a plan to develop a sustainable urban microfarm project that would provide fresh, healthy food to the North End while also stimulating the area's economy. A symposium was held in the North End to bring the community together for a discussion about what methods would be best for developing urban agriculture in the area. After hearing about Curtis's ideas for a microfarm project, members of the community such as Bonham, Matthew and Amanda Stanfield, Vincent Owens and others signed on to the idea. Curtis then began making arrangements to secure grant funding for the project. In the end, Curtis became the Principle Investigator for a $2 million matching grant from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. This grant became the seed for the development of the Richland Gro-Op.
Today, the Richland Gro-Op (RGO) consists of eight farmers, some working from land that NECIC made available for the project. At its roots, RGO is about the economic development of the North End. Participants knew that the microfarm project would eventually need to become a county-wide endeavor--they would be unable achieve food sovereignty and justice by themselves. Rural growers would need to eventually become involved to increase the volume of deliverables, but a more central focus for the Gro-Op has been to train and support local entrepreneurs. RGO knows that the North-End community members can empower themselves by nourishing their bodies WHILE creating jobs that would improve the economic life of the North-End. Through partnerships with community organizations and other farmers, RGO has been able to create an independent cooperative of entrepreneurs whose goal is to advance the quality of urban life in the North End.