CLEVELAND — For the last few years, Spectrum News has been following the story of Food Strong — a nonprofit in northeast Ohio that is fighting food insecurity through community outreach and educational programming.

What You Need To Know

  • Food Strong is a nonprofit fighting food insecurity in northeast Ohio

  • The organization hosted its annual charity gala Cornucopia

  • The group also works with students on growing food

Despite consistent efforts, the problem persists. Spectrum News revisited the organization to see what’s new at this year's charity gala, "Cornucopia."

Sara Continenza’s dad planted the seed early. Since she was a little girl, her father taught her to love gardening and the great outdoors.

“I think my dad was before his time in many ways, so he taught us a lot growing up," she said.

But her true passion for food grew out of her experiences working in the Peace Corps in West Africa.

"Seeing the hunger in Africa really got me passionate initially, and then I came back to America and saw a whole different type of hunger. You know, when you see people that are overfed but undernourished," said Continenza.

Food deserts are a big part of the problem.

According to the latest data in 2018 from the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission and the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, just shy of 443,000 people or 35% of the total resident population in the county lives in a food desert. 

That’s an area where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food.

“Instead of waiting for the next grocery store or waiting for the government to come do something, we need to take action for ourselves and we need to know not only how to grow our own food, but how to identify the food that grows all around us all the time," said Continenza.

That concept inspired her to found her nonprofit, Food Strong, in 2018.

Working with kids is another one of her passions and her organization started in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District as a toolkit that grew into on-site gardens and cooking classes.

“It’s something that’s really magical and I’ve seen a lot of kids actually want to eat more vegetables because they grew it themselves," she said.

The Food Strong Learning Garden at the Coit Road Market Garden in East Cleveland was built during the pandemic as a way to continue the hands-on experience.

“Food is medicine," is one of Continenza's mantras.

She harvested vegetables that her students planted and cared for to be served up at “Cornucopia,” Food Strong’s annual fundraising gala on Sept. 23 at Lago Custom Events.

Approximately 200 people attended to help raise around $17,000.

“We want our event to be directly connected to the work we do in the community. We don’t want to just have some glitzy glammed out event that’s totally out of touch with what we’re trying to do here in East Cleveland," said Continenza.

Beautifying East Cleveland with murals and art is another part of Food Strong’s mission.

“In a place like East Cleveland, where there’s so many dilapidated homes and buildings and structures a little bit of art goes so far," she said.

And a lot of what is grown in the Food Strong Learning Garden and the community garden is sold across the street at the Coit Road Farmer’s Market.

“If you’re in a community where you have to get on two or three buses to get an apple or some vegetables, that’s a problem," said Continenza. "The farmer’s market is really the only place where you can access fresh local foods in the entire city right now.”

Continenza believes the lack of access to fresh, healthy foods in places like East Cleveland is a crime and Food Strong aims to work with the community to fight back.

“That should be available to everyone and I’m not going to rest until I see that happen," she said.