Transforming the Food Economy

By Ian Adelman

The food movement has grabbed the attention of many of us interested in realizing a just and sustainable future. Food is a starting point for discussions of equity, environment, culture, race, health, and the economy. In the following post I will share how I have used the food lens to explore transformative community economic development. By transformative community economic development, I mean community economic development strategies that shift the power relations of civil society, the state and business – so that civil society has a stronger voice and role in determining the goals and outcomes of community economic development. These strategies are also both local and global, recognize the expertise and contributions of communities, enable a more equitable allocation of resources, promote sustainability over growth, and engage in decision-making that is democratic, pluralistic, and inclusive[1]. For a more detailed explanation of Transformative Community Economic Development see the previous post.

Why Food? Why Anchor Institutions?

The food economy represents both a crisis and an opportunity for community economic development. The food sector, which employs nearly 20 million workers and sells over $1.8 trillion in goods and services (13% of U.S. GDP), is a growing sector of the economy. Job growth in the food retail and service sector has outpaced other private sector job growth[2]. There is also particularly strong growth in urban areas, “millions of jobs, many within the reach of most urban residents, exist in food processing, manufacturing and distribution chains and the food service divisions of the many huge urban institutions”[3].

But the strength of the food economy has to be understood in contrast to the challenges facing food chain workers. A survey of 629 food chain workers and 21 employers by the Food Chain Workers Alliance reveals the issues. The median wage for 86% of surveyed food sector workers was $18,900; 23% were paid subminimum wages and 37% were paid poverty wages. Only 13.5% were paid a living wage. Furthermore, workers have limited opportunities for career advancement and are often subject to wage theft and abuse[4].

The food industry has also become a more formidable opponent to equity and sustainability. Years of corporate consolidation have resulted in a few extremely large and powerful food businesses pursuing greater and greater profits at the cost of people and planet. For example, three companies process 70% of all beef, 10% of U.S. farms collected 74% of all federal agriculture subsidies, and Walmart controls 33% of the grocery market[5]. So, on one hand, the food sector represents an opportunity to build new businesses and employ more workers, but on the other the food sector has been home to the worst examples of exploitation and destruction in the name of neoliberal capitalism. Therefore it seems valid to ask how might we seek transformation in the food economy.

It also seems reasonable to focus on strategies that involve large institutions. Just as a few massive multinationals dominate the production end of the food economy, in many markets the biggest players on the consumption end are major institutions, such as hospitals or universities.  These major employers, purchasers and service providers, which are deeply rooted in their host communities, are often referred to as anchor institutions[6]. Changing what foods these anchors purchase and how they purchase them has the potential to put pressure on the current producers but also opens up opportunities for new businesses built on principles of equity and sustainability.

Consider the sheer purchasing capacity of these anchors: according to the think tank Initiatives for a Competitive Inner City, “institutions represent nearly ¼ of all food spending”[7]. Universities and colleges alone generated over $19 billion in food service revenue. Primary and secondary schools generated nearly $13 billion, and hospitals and nursing homes generated over $21 billion[8]. Looking closer to home, Tufts University’s Medford campus spends approximately $6 million on food each year[9] and it is only one of dozens of colleges in the Metro Boston area.

Food and Community Economic Development: Best Practices

I divide food and anchor based community economic development strategies into one of three categories: Worker Focused, Procurement Focused, or New Business Development Focused.

Worker focused strategies attempt to address these issues through unionizing workers, ending or negotiating contracts with outside dining service providers, bringing dining service operations in-house (i.e. ending a contract with an outside food service provider, and hiring in-house dining service staff), or instituting fair labor standards such as living wage requirements.

Real Food Real Jobs

A prominent example of the Worker Focused strategy is UNITE HERE!’s Real Food, Real Jobs campaign. Essentially it is an effort to leverage the excitement around the food movement to expand the unionization of university dining service staff (UNITE HERE! is a union representing food service workers, among others). In many ways the food movement has ignored the plight of the workers within the food sector, but the Real Food, Real Jobs campaign shows how improvements to food quality, safety, and sustainability will be achieved through improving the conditions for the workers. In the Spring of 2012 Northeastern University’s dining service workers organized themselves into a union; others will likely follow soon.

Procurement strategies focus on what an institution purchases—is it local? Is it organic or humanely produced? They also focus on how an institution purchases food. Most anchor institutions demand consistent, low-cost, preprocessed and prepared products in very large quantities. In order for small, local businesses to become suppliers, institutions have to change how they interface with vendors. They have to make their purchasing criteria and processes available. They have to be willing to manage the logistics of working with individual vendors directly instead of just large distributors and to accommodate more frequent, low volume deliveries.

Many colleges and universities have implemented “buy local” strategies or have tried to incorporate more organic produce into their orders, but The Real Food Challenge is a procurement focused strategy that attempts to address what is purchased and how it is purchased. The Real Food Challenge is a campaign to shift $1 billion of annual college and university food purchases away from industrial agriculture to “real food”, which is defined as food that is local or community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane[10]. The “what” of food purchasing is addressed by the real food criteria, but “how” food is purchased is shifted by creating a Food Systems Working group made up of students, faculty and dining services staff that creates a multi-year Food Action Plan to achieve at least 20% real food purchases by 2020.

The third way in which institutions are getting involved in the food economy is through their support of, or collaboration with, local food businesses.  Many universities or hospitals are so large that their individual demands for certain products can be sufficient to support the start up of a business. In addition to being a major customer, institutions can also support local food business startups by providing seed capital or financing, offering below market leases for retail space, processing space or agricultural land, by providing technical assistance, or a combination of all of the above.

Green City Growers Cooperative, which just began operations this year, is possibly the largest institutionally supported new food business in the U.S. Green City Growers is one of three worker-owned coops (the Evergreen Cooperatives) supported by a collaboration of Cleveland area institutions including University Hospitals, Case Western Reserve and the Cleveland Foundation. Green City Growers will sell fresh greens and herbs to the local institutions grown in a three-acre commercial greenhouse capable of producing three million heads of lettuce a 300,000 pounds of herbs a year.

Summary of Best Practices

The three categories of strategies that I chose to delineate are not necessarily divergent or isolated; yet no example from each manages to fully address all three areas: worker issues, procurement issues, and new business development issues. The Real Food Challenge could better incorporate worker issues by stipulating strict worker wage or condition policies in the Food Action Plan, but how will it ever achieve its goals if there are not enough local businesses to supply real food? Unionizing dining service staff may be the most effective way to improve conditions for workers but even as secure union members, how much say will they have over where the food comes from? Those will still be institutional decisions made based on cost. And no new small business will be able to interface with the usual operations of an institutional purchaser. Anchors will have to adjust their purchasing practices in order to integrate a new wave of small food businesses. Worker, procurement, and business development strategies have to be pursued in a coordinated effort in order to transform the food economy.

What would it take to leverage a local anchor institution for transformative community economic development in the food economy? In the second part of my thesis project, I tried to answer this question by focusing on Tufts University and its dining services. I was able to define a few clear starting points for further research. I will lay out these starting points in a future post in the hopes of sparking interest in others to take the next step.


[1] This article is based on Ian Adelman and Emily Earle’s collaborative masters thesis “Part I: Towards a More Transformative Community Economic Development,” 2012 and Ian Adelman’s individual second part, “Community Economic Development in the Food Economy,” 2012. To download Earle Thesis – FINAL  Adelman Thesis Final

[2] The Food Chain Workers Alliance. (2012). The Hands That Feed Us: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers Along the Food Chain. The Restaurant Opportunities Center United.

[3] Astor, A., K. Karp, T. Lynch, and J. Miara. (2012). The Time is Right to Grow the Urban Food Industry Cluster. Economic Development Now, Vol. 12, Issue 13.

[4] Ibid. 2.

[5] Ibid. 2.

[6] Initiative for a Competitive Inner City and CEOs for Cities. (2002) Leveraging Colleges and Universities for Urban Economic Revitalization: An Action Agenda.

[7] ICIC, Next Street and Karp Resources. (2011). Designing an Inner City Food Cluster Strategy, a presentation to the Inner City Economic Summit.

[8] Miller, R. K. and Associates. (2011) The 2011 Restaurant, Food & Beverage Market Research Handbook. http://www.rkma.com/2011restaurantSAMPLE.pdf

[9] Interview with Tufts Dining Services Purchasing Director, Paul Denaro.

[10] Real Food Challenge. (2011) Best Practices for Campus Food Systems: A Guide to

Creating Your Campus Real Food Policy.

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