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Anchoring Local Food Systems in the Inner City

Written by Kim Zeuli, ICIC


In cities across the U.S., the local food movement has evolved from marginal to mainstream.  Most cities host not just one, but several thriving farmers markets. Farm to City operates 18 farmer markets in Philadelphia. Boston hosts 28, including several in the inner city. Restaurants of all styles boast of seasonal menus built around the offerings of local farms. The D.C. Farm to School Program is just one example of an increasing number of urban public K-12 school districts bringing local food to students.

Universities have also embraced the movement. At the University of Louisville, their campus dining vendor is contractually required to source at least 15% of their food from within 250 miles of campus. In addition to local food purchasing initiatives, Wayne State University in Detroit operates a thriving farmers market. The Sustainable Food Project at Yale is a decade old and emphasizes serving local food at all of Yale’s dining halls. Given that universities spend an estimated $15 billion on food services annually, the impact of this movement on local farms could be substantial.

Yet, as we argue in our new publication Anchor Institutions and Food Systems: A Recipe for Economic Growth, universities can play an even more significant role in supporting local food systems. Through our work in Boston, Detroit, Baltimore and Providence, Rhode Island, we have gained a unique perspective on the powerful relationship between universities, hospitals and other anchor organizations and local food systems. By catalyzing cities to grow their local food systems, anchor organizations can create value for themselves and their communities.

Some academic institutions are well positioned to create shared value within the food system simply by pursuing their mission. As we discuss in the report, culinary institutions such as Johnson & Wales University, with campuses in Providence, Charlotte, Denver and Miami, are uniquely positioned to act as a food system anchor in their communities. Graduates of culinary institutions contribute tremendous energy and skills to local restaurants and food service organizations. Two of the cities in which Johnson & Wales has been located—Providence and Charleston, N.C. (now consolidated with the Charlotte campus)—have been named top food destinations. There are nearly 600 accredited culinary institutions across the U.S.

There are also over 100 colleges and universities that are designated land-grant institutions. The original mission of the land-grants, dating back to 1862, included research, teaching and outreach that advanced the agricultural sector. As such, most have a long history of food innovation, using their research capabilities to make advances in both production techniques and food processing. Today, many land grants are also focused on supporting entrepreneurs in the food system. For example, Rutgers University, the land-grant in New Jersey, established the Rutgers Food Innovation Center, a business incubation program that is part of a broader mission to rebuild New Jersey’s food economy.

Just as incubators are thriving in the technology space, and hacker/maker spaces are growing in manufacturing and design, food business incubators are burgeoning. The Center for Culinary Enterprises in Philadelphia, CropCircle Kitchen in Boston, and Commercial Kitchen 305 in Miami are some notable examples. Culinary incubators are another shared value strategy that universities could adopt to support entrepreneurs with small budgets and big ideas. While incubators vary in size, they all typically offer shared-use commercial kitchens and food storage space with hourly, daily, weekly, and monthly rates to culinary entrepreneurs. University-led incubators can provide the business support that is also invaluable for entrepreneurs looking to start their new food-based venture. The International Center for Entrepreneurship at Johnson & Wales University, for example, brings together the requisite experiential learning, mentorship, small business supports, and venture capital under the roof of a business incubator with private and co-working space.

Perhaps less obvious is the potential of universities to transform real estate development in their cities to support the growth of the local food economy. While many universities have engaged as real estate developers to improve the housing stock and commercial corridors, we have not found any examples of universities focused on creating a food-focused development projects. In addition to providing more local dining and food retail options to the community, such developments could create experiential learning and entrepreneurship opportunities for university students as well as community residents. The university could focus on attracting local food providers and businesses committed to supporting the local food system. In return, the university could ensure a level of stability through long-term lease agreements with the project developers.

There are clear incentives for universities with a land-grant mission or strong culinary focus to lead the effort to grow local food systems in their communities. They can have a greater impact by adopting additional shared value strategies beyond their core service offerings to become a true food system anchor, thereby stimulating growth of food-related businesses and institutions in the region and creating models that can be replicated by other institutions, regardless of their mission.


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