The roots of Food Strong Cleveland, according to Executive Director Sara Contineza, lie in Burkina Faso, West Africa. In 2005, after graduating from Ohio State University, Sara Continenza was a Peace Corps volunteer living in the politically volatile, impoverished country of Burkina Faso. While serving as a female empowerment educator for two years, she began a school garden for the community in which she lived.
“It really awoke in me a passion for community development and outreach programming,” Contineza explains. The planting of that school garden fifteen years ago fostered her deep commitment to serving others — far from that distant country, she worked for the Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland before launching Food Strong Cleveland as a nonprofit parented by her consulting firm, Whole Vision LCC. Contineza, also a South Euclid city councilwoman, credits Burkina Faso and her Peace Corps service experience as the cornerstone for much of the community-based work she does today.
Food Strong Cleveland, in fact, stems from Continenza’s interest in fresh food and wellness, an interest planted and nourished in Burkina Faso. Founded in July, 2018, Food Strong is a nonprofit commissioned to “empower and strengthen communities around food.” The nonprofit has enabled Continenza to organize her vision and channel resources more effectively. Current Food Strong programs are Care-A-Van, co-founded by Amy Budish, and School Gardens.
A traveling nutritional funfest, Care-A-Van brings the party to local events such as farmer’s markets and community potlucks. Valuable resources are available on-site, accompanied by music, cooking classes, and giveaways.
The School Garden program harks back to Continenza’s experiences in West Africa. Returning to Cleveland as a teacher, she found that some of her students could not identify the names of produce. With garden toolkits designed by Ohio Learning Standards for local Cleveland schools, Food Strong offers a youth entrepreneurship branch to the school gardens reminiscent of her work in Burkina Faso.
With guidance, students who take part in the entrepreneurship program are empowered to create quality products while marketing and selling them. Continenza explains that the motivation behind youth entrepreneurship is Food Strong’s intention to “break free from the donor-recipient model of service,” which she believes is not sustainable.
Although she wouldn’t categorize herself as an expert, Continenza finds gardening therapeutic and is passionate about what gardening can do for others. “I am a coordinator,” she says, adding that while she doesn’t know everything, she does “know enough to guide the students through the general process, and then I bring in the experts.”
You can take part in Food Strong’s Care-A-Van events this summer at the Coit Road Farmers Market, where Sara and her team will demonstrate the correlation between nutritional and economical wellness and where the youth entrepreneurship component will allow students to make fiscal exchanges with other market vendors and create sellable products. As Continenza sees it, Food Strong exists because of community collaboration like these events.
The strength of such collaboration is obvious. When a school that houses a Food Strong garden announced that it will be closing, for instance, a local church, Changing Lives Ministries, partnered with Continenza and agreed to house the garden program moving forward. “Everything I do, I create partnerships, and I use those partnerships to keep things sustainable,” explains Continenza.
Even as Food Strong continues to establish its community roots, the organization is also initiating expansion plans with the goals of planting more gardens, improving programs, and generating funds. You can support Food Strong’s efforts by attending the Cornucopia of Hope fundraising gala on September 24.
The power of service and community navigated Sara Continenza to Burkina Faso and back home again, spanning the miles between a small West African garden and Food Strong neighborhoods in Cleveland, a journey worth taking.