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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Jeremy Nowak urges food funders to learn from practice

Cassandra West

By Susan Richardson PHILADELPHIA -- Funders and philanthropies should be willing to learn from practice in creating models for access to healthy food, said Jeremy Nowak, president and CEO of The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), speaking on the second day of the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders conference in Philadelphia.

"Look at creating a live laboratory for financing and development of the food movement," said Nowak (left), whose nonprofit organization played a key role in developing Pennsylvania's Healthy Food Financing Initiative. The initiative has increased the number of grocers, farmers markets and other outlets for healthy food in underserved, low-income communities in Philadelphia and is a model for national legislation supported by the White House.

Funders must be willing to support practices and policies that sometimes lead to "dead ends," he said, adding that  "development is iterative." The alternative is to wait for a comprehensive approach that can result in inaction, he said.

Nowak's comments at Wednesday's session of the food funders conference focused on lessons from TRF's involvement in financing healthy food. The organization's work in the food movement began about six years ago, at the request of a leading state official who inquired about the  dearth of grocers in Philadelphia's inner-city communities.   (Nowak credited the Food Trust with generating interest in the issue.)  Grocers told Nowak that  the cost of doing business in the communities was steeper than in suburban areas because of  training, infrastructure and insurance.

Two critical lessons emerged from the experience: listening is critical to understanding the issues grocers face and demand has to be created for more healthy food choices. In the absence of healthy choices, Nowak said, people get used to what they are offered.

"Don't build down to the market; build up to the market," Nowak said.  The approach, he added, will help change consumer expectations in communities where both the quality of the food and the quality of service are often lacking.

TRF has helped create access to healthy food for more than 1 million people, including 80 markets, 25 of which are in Philadelphia.

The city is like many urban areas across the country. It suffers from a rise in vacant lots and abandoned properties and a declining population.  Philadelphia's food deserts reflect the demographic transformation of the city and its corresponding economic challenges.

Nowak said the key question is: "How do you catalyze economic growth in ways that advantage low-income people and places and get them into the mainstream economy?"

TRF's mission is to work in the "sweet spot between growth and equity," he said. The organization, which manages $700 million, views itself as a capital and information intermediary that can work in the "gray area between civics and markets," he said.

Learn more about the SAFSF conference.