As many of you know, we publish a monthly Good Food Brief with the big and small stories that chronicle trends in the food industry. Sometimes we come across programs that we wish had news coverage so that we could share them with you. Programs that serve often excluded communities, that deploy capital to build equity equitably, that create community benefits by activating the community itself.
Fortunately, we also have this well-read blog and a quarterly newsletter to shed light on programs and ideas worth sharing!
So, sometime over the holidays when you need encouragement or have time to idly roam the internet, take a tour of these great initiatives that we’ve come to know over the past year through our reading, conferences, and conversations. There are eight in no particular order, and not all have websites, yet! We hope they inspire you and give you hope that together we are building the food system and communities we all yearn for.
Holland has the largest municipally-run snowmelt system in the country. A snowmelt system is under-pavement heating that melts snow and ice to make roads and walkways safer for drivers and pedestrians in winter climates. While you may have enjoyed snow-free walkways in ski resorts, it is less common in cities and towns because it is too costly to install and operate these systems without a commercial return on the investment.
In Holland in the 1980s, a local businessman was thinking differently about ROI. Seeking investments that made Holland an attractive place to live and work for his family and employees, Edgar Prince brought the idea to the city and largely financed it. His investments have helped Holland avoid the fate of many manufacturing areas, and instead created a downtown where people and businesses can thrive. My parents recently visited Holland and were heartened to see a senior living facility on the snowmelt system, where elderly people could visit shops and neighbors year-round, getting exercise and avoiding isolation.
In the spring I was introduced to UMA, the Urban Manufacturing Alliance. UMA exists to connect planners, developers, investors, nonprofit leaders, and professional service providers who are rebuilding the manufacturing sector in the U.S. and creating sustainable manufacturing jobs. Having attended both of their 2019 Gatherings in Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, I met the most surprising network of practitioners. People who are renovating former industrial buildings into creative maker spaces. People who understand that there is a story that needs to be told about the value of manufacturing and the dignity of manufacturing jobs. People who do this by intentionally planning manufacturing districts that honor the humanity of workers with high quality amenities and affordable housing. People who define “equity” not just in terms of equal treatment and opportunity, but who embrace the financial meaning of equity and seek to build wealth in the communities where their projects are developed.
This novel approach to community investment invites the community to invest in the community. But not just the wealthy philanthropist or accredited investor. It’s for individuals who may want to invest as little as $500 in a local business rather than in the stock market, so that both the investment and the investor can build wealth that stays in the community. Fund Milwaukee is entirely volunteer led and run by its members: “Membership is important because we are a group of family and friends that invest in each other’s businesses. Your membership acknowledges your friendship. Membership is free.”
4. Chef Space
Chef Space is a kitchen incubator based in Louisville, Kentucky that has helped to launch 80 businesses. Yes, there are hundreds of kitchen incubators! What’s different about Chef Space is its tie to community finance organizations that are building the brick-and-mortar assets that food entrepreneurs need throughout their business lifecycle. Chef Space is a project of Community Ventures, a nonprofit financial services agency that built, owns and operates the incubator. Community Ventures is now partnering with One West, a nonprofit community development organization, to purchase and renovate buildings in the neighborhood that can serve as storefront locations for these businesses to establish their brand and concept, while bringing needed improvements to the community.
I learned about Baltimore-based Jewish Farming Network attending Lightning Talks at the Community Food System conference in Savannah, Georgia (where I also discovered that Lightning Talks are absolutely delightful!). Co-founder Shani Mink shared a brief and beautiful overview of how the organization aims to hold up agriculture as a traditional and proud profession for a people now estranged from land. To Shani, “ancient Jewish wisdom is rich in both regenerative agricultural practices and holistic food justice principles.” I’ll never do her words justice in summation but hope that one day she will write a book that can deepen our understanding of this complex relationship and “the power of connecting vocation with tradition.”
Another delightful Lightning Talk came from Fishadelphia, a Philadelphia-based community seafood program that “brings fresh seafood from regional harvesters and processors to economically and culturally diverse consumers at reasonable prices.” What makes this different than the hundreds of community-supported fisheries in the U.S.? Fishadelphia’s day-to-day operations are coordinated by high school students! The program operates as an extra-curricular activity at two charter school campuses. Students plan and coordinate all of the activities—even determining what species to include based on that week’s market pricing—and shares are delivered to the school pickup locations every other week.
7. Central Kitchen for Hunger Organizations
This is a big idea that is a component of two projects currently underway at New Venture Advisors. The idea is to combine the kitchen operations of multiple hunger organizations—think Meals on Wheels, YMCA, food pantries, backpack programs, shelters—into a central kitchen or commissary run by one of the organizations or a third party. So often, and especially in small communities, hunger relief organizations are pillars of the food system, but very poorly resourced and equipped. Each may have its own production space, but sometimes in a facility with inadequate storage, unreliable equipment or an inefficient layout, and relying mostly on volunteer labor. We are studying the economics of combining the operations of multiple under-resourced organizations into one adequately-equipped facility. The hypothesis is that the savings in shared infrastructure and labor could make these programs more stable and more impactful without adding to their operating budgets. We’ll update this post with links when there’s more to share.
8. Shared Kitchens in Houses of Worship
We’re often working in rural towns that lack the infrastructure to support their local food system. The need for certified kitchen space for farmers to use for value-addition, or to incubate new food businesses, is widespread. Repurposing existing assets rather than building new ones is a tenet of our work, and Faith in Place landed on a brilliant strategy: use what is likely the most widely distributed asset base of kitchens in rural areas—houses of worship—as shared kitchens. This is so obvious that I’m shocked it hasn’t yet been explored comprehensively! Well, now Faith in Place is doing just that, and, together with Open Door Advisors, New Venture Advisors is helping them create a starter guide for leaders of churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues to evaluate the opportunity.
(Photo of Holland, Michigan)