Lending To and Learning From Agripreneurs

By Steve Saltzman, Self-Help
Healthy food access initiatives are gaining steam across the country, expanding availability of fresh produce in food deserts and creating jobs in economically challenged communities. Recognizing that availability in and of itself does not create access, a new set of initiatives seeks to tackle behavioral change in order to increase demand for healthy food.  Growing demand, in turn, mandates the need to ensure food is responsibly supplied – responsibly farmed, processed and distributed by workers who are able to be healthy foods consumers themselves. Achieving all of these goals is a tall order, and one that requires innovation and experimentation. 
As a community development financial institution (CDFI), Self-Help believes our healthy food system financing should both support our borrowers and be a catalyst for positive systemic change.  And at its best, our lending should be a laboratory of sorts, providing an opportunity to leverage learnings from our borrowers: “agripreneurs,” food system leaders and innovators. 
This includes agripreneurs like Sandi Kronick, founder of Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO), a farmer-owned produce distributor that has transitioned small and mid-sized North Carolina family farms from producing tobacco to organic fruits and vegetables. ECO’s mission is simple: help local farms meet wholesale demand for organic produce. In practice, however, ECO is transforming the food system.  By pooling produce from multiple farms, ECO can meet conventional grocer and co-op demand for fruits and vegetables, at prices that most small farms could not command on their own.  This allows ECO to return a majority of its revenues to its farmers – a far greater percentage than they would receive from a conventional distributor – while still paying its workers a livable wage.  
And food system leaders like Eastside Food Cooperative in Minneapolis and With Love Community Market and Cafe in Southwest Los Angeles, both of whom provide access to healthy foods in low-to-moderate income communities that would otherwise lack healthy options, source significant amounts of the food they sell locally and pay their employees livable wages.
As well as innovators like the graduate students from the University of North Carolina’s School of Public Health, who, while interning in Self-Help’s healthy food system finance program, worked with our public school borrowers to create a student-led healthy food program in rural North Carolina.  Student Power Over Our Nutrition (SPOON) influenced behavioral change by empowering students in one of the most economically challenged communities in the state to take an active role in their school’s food program. Equally important, Self-Help’s SPOON team taught the kitchen staff and educators how to implement the students’ healthier food choices within the limits of the existing school budget.  
Each of these projects have resulted in learnings that can be leveraged to help create a healthier food system.  A system where access and affordability go hand-in-hand with economic and environmental sustainability.  A system where everyone, including the workers who process meats, harvest tomatoes and serve in restaurants can, quite literally, enjoy the fruits of their labor.  
Steve Saltzman is the Director of Healthy Food System Finance at Self-Help, a national CDFI that has spent the last 35 years finding ways to help communities grow and prosper. Standing with others who are working to create healthy food systems, Self-Help finances projects that increase access to healthy foods in low-income communities and improve the environmental and economic sustainability of our food system. Self-Help’s mission is to create and protect economic opportunity for all. Learn more here.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of The Healthy Food Access Portal.