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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Financing Local Food: 'Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is'

Cassandra West

By Susan Richardson From support for supermarkets in neighborhoods with more liquor stores than healthy food choices to efforts to increase the number of USDA certified organic poultry processors, philanthropic organizations are increasingly taking part in a growing movement for sustainable agriculture and access to healthy food. 

 “This is a time of convergence,” said Karen Lehman, director of Fresh Taste, a Chicago-based collaborative supported by area foundations that encourages diverse local agriculture and healthy eating in Illinois. 

Last week, Lehman moderated a panel on food finance at the PRI Makers  National Conference in Chicago, a group of foundations and other funders that provide low-interest loans and other creative financing for charitable purposes.

Though food finance is still an unknown for most foundations, the panel discussion, titled “Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Local Food Finance,” underscored the rising profile of food issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.  Panelists shared experiences in financing local food initiatives, discussed the importance of building the capacity of organizations to execute food-related projects and emphasized the need to grow efforts in communities of color, where food financing can potentially have a great impact on public health and economic development.

News coverage about food recalls, First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to combat childhood obesity, and the spread of community gardens as a tool for both revitalizing neighborhoods and building community have all increased public awareness about what Americans eat, where it comes from, and how it is produced.  At the PRI session, almost everyone raised their hand when asked if they had seen the documentary Food, Inc., which skewers the food manufacturing industry. 

But today’s tipping point in terms of food awareness is the result of years of labor by grass-root organizations to bring public health, environmental, social justice, and economic development concerns together around the food delivery system. “These issues are in the spotlight as never before,” according to the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders, which is holding its annual conference in Philadelphia June 15-18.  “Efforts over the past decades helped sow the ground from which today’s opportunities have grown. But what next?”

 Under the theme of “Shaking it Up, Making It Last: A Real Food System for All,” the conference will explore issues including cross-disciplinary efforts to build community health through urban agriculture; the challenges of making healthy food accessible to everyone; financing local food initiatives, and changing the certification system for domestic agriculture.  In addition, participants will tour various project sites in and around Philadelphia, including food-producing farms and a community garden built on abandoned inner-city lots.  

A keynote speaker will be Jeremy Nowak, founder and CEO of The Reinvestment Fund, which was instrumental in financing the first grocer in West Philadelphia in years.  The Fund worked on behalf of Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a model for the Obama administration’s $400 million National Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which could provide support for grocery stores, farmers markets and other efforts to provide healthy food in underserved communities. In February, the First Lady visited a North Philadelphia grocery store supported by the state’s fresh food financing initiative in conjunction with the launch of her campaign against childhood obesity. 

The focus of the Sustainable Agriculture Funders conference is to tap into the momentum around food issues to create a national food system that better serves public health.

For more information about the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders, visit www.safsf.org.