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Want a more equitable city? Try food-oriented design

The way to a stronger city is through its stomach

Food-oriented design is helping communities across the nation grow equitably. In St. Paul, the Little Mekong Night Market offers local produce and traditional southeast Asian foods.
Courtesy Asian Economic Development Association

Cities rely on a familiar toolkit to become stronger, healthier, and more livable: expand transportation, create public space, add jobs, construct housing.

While these strategies have been proven to work, they also fuel inequality and displacement; not everyone benefits from a big build. A different approach is poised to promote more socially resilient and sustainable growth: food-oriented development.

Food-oriented development is not new—organizations have been successfully implementing these programs locally for years. However, a new grant program from the Kresge Foundation called FreshLo—shorthand for “Fresh, Local, and Equitable”—is affirming this approach and investing much-needed capital to help it scale. Recently, it awarded 23 nonprofits $200,000 each to nurture this type of work.

The discussion about food and urbanism usually focuses on grocery store access and the need to eliminate food deserts—areas without grocery stores—and food swamps—areas with a high concentration of unhealthy food—as the presence of each correlates with areas that have high obesity rates.

But food-oriented development is much more: it’s about using food as a creative placemaking tool, a cultural preservation mechanism, and a platform for equitable economic development. The Kresge Foundation hopes that food-oriented development becomes as much a part of the urbanist’s parlance as its namesake transit-oriented development, the strategy of concentrating new development around public transportation infrastructure.

“Transit-oriented development can be capital intensive, take a long time, and provide a mixed bag in terms of benefits—especially for low-income communities—and there are limited opportunities for community ownership,” says Chris Kabel, director of the Kresge Foundation’s health program. “But food-oriented development doesn’t take as many resources to implement, can be rapidly iterated and prototyped, and there are better opportunities for people to influence how development occurs.”

But is food-oriented development just a new buzz phrase, or can it actually make communities more equitable? As the recipients of Kresge’s FreshLo grants show, thinking about food beyond sustenance can nourish communities physically, socially, and economically. The path to a healthier city is through its stomach.

The Asheville, North Carolina, nonprofit Green Opportunities hosts lunches and dinners for its community.
Courtesy Green Opportunities

Food as a community’s backbone

“Food is universal; everybody eats,” says J. Hackett, executive director of Green Opportunities, a nonprofit in Asheville, North Carolina, that offers job training to marginalized communities and also serves meals made from vegetables grown in its community garden. “It’s the glue that brings people together.”

Asheville has been growing, but not equitably. The unemployment rate in Asheville was 10 percent in January 2010 and is about 3.7 percent today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; however, the neighborhood around Green Opportunities hasn’t experienced the same decline. 41 percent of the people in its census tract are impoverished and the per-capita income is half that of Asheville as a whole. Meanwhile, gentrification is making the city increasingly unaffordable.

Green Opportunities grows vegetables like kale, okra, and beans in its community garden and uses them in the meals it prepares.
Courtesy Green Opportunities

“Our communities are hurting and sick, and we’re trying to be part of the solution,” Hackett says. “Green Opportunities takes untapped resources that are already in our communities and sheds light on them.”

Hackett’s professional background is in mental health support and services. He ran a community-based counseling agency and worked with people to manage their anger, stabilize their lives, and work through trauma. What he learned through experience is that people need meaningful work to be successful. Food and construction are two industries with a low barrier for entry that pay decent wages and overlook justice system involvement.

What Green Opportunities noticed is that while plenty of companies in Asheville are growing, and plenty of people are looking for work, there was a mismatch between the available workforce and the skills employers needed. Green Opportunities offers certification programs to close the gap, like a 15-week “kitchen ready” track that teaches knife skills, kitchen math, and basic cooking techniques. At the end, students earn ServSafe food handler’s certification and they have the skills for entry-level work at restaurants. The construction curriculum teaches carpentry skills and offers OSHA safety certification.

In addition to job training, Green Opportunities has partnerships with other organizations to provide both food and services and hires from its student pool to do the work. It has a contract with the YMCA to provide 20,000 meals for its Summer Meals program, which offers food to school-age children, and with the Leaf Arts Festival, a summertime arts and music fair, to provide 30,000 meals. The organization also partners with Asheville’s Housing Authority so its students can get paid on-the-job experience building low-income housing. The goal is to teach people skills, give them credentials they can use in the future, and place them in full-time positions.

The culinary arts program teaches basic kitchen skills and more advanced things, like plating for catering.
Courtesy Green Opportunities

Since 2012, over 200 people have graduated from Green Opportunities’ training programs. The job placement rate is 82 percent, which is above the 76 percent rate for “high performing” organizations.

“It’s about self-sufficiency,” Hackett says. “It’s about giving people the ability to stand on their own.”

Green Opportunities welcomes civic leaders, parents and kids in the neighborhood, local business owners, and anyone who’s interested in a a seat at the table to its lunches. Just getting people together is the goal. With the $200,000 FreshLo grant, the organization plans to complete an auditorium where it can host more gatherings and help mobilize its community.

“There are a lot of problems in a lot of neighborhoods,” Hackett says. “We don’t know how to solve them, but solutions have to start somewhere. We can start the right conversation about food equity and economics. Sometimes it boils down to asking, ‘Can you pass the pepper?’ And it starts from there. We are navigating some crazy systems that have been around for a long time. But we’ve been eating food for just as long.”

The Little Mekong Night Market draws thousands of people in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Courtesy Asian Economic Development Association

Cultural preservation, one restaurant at a time

In the mid-2000s, Minneapolis and St. Paul began building a light-rail line to link the Twin Cities’ downtowns. The Green Line runs straight through Frogtown, a St. Paul neighborhood home to many Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees. When the city greenlit the Green Line, many of the business owners were concerned that the new railway would forever change their enclave and price them out. So they called upon Va-Megn Thoj—who was working in the mayor’s office as a small business liaison—to help preserve their place in the city and ensure it would keep thriving. Thoj left his job and founded the Asian Economic Development Association (AEDA), which worked with the city to rename part of Frogtown “Little Mekong.”

AEDA realized early on that in order for Little Mekong to be successful, more people—not just the immigrant community—would have to come to the neighborhood to spend their money. The clearest avenue toward achieving that goal? Food.

“From an outside perspective, we’re identified by food,” Thoj says. “Food is something everyone can agree is a cultural asset of our community. . .Creative placemaking means leveraging the cultural capital of your community. And for refugee immigrants, that’s all we have. Our cultural identity is very strong.”

To help immigrants start their own food businesses or improve the ones they already have, AEDA offers consulting services in English, Hmong, Vietnamese, Thai, and Lao for everything from coming up with a business plan to storefront improvement. It also hosts an annual pop-up night market—a street food festival serving Asian dishes like bao and satay —and offers some free stalls where food entrepreneurs can test their ideas.

The Little Mekong Night Market features vendors serving southeast Asian food.
Courtesy Asian Economic Development Association

The next big plan for AEDA is to open a brick-and-mortar food hub where it can rent out industrial kitchen space and restaurant space, grow its own vegetables, and host events. To that end, it’s partnered with Frogtown Farm, the Urban Farm and Garden Alliance, and Public Art Saint Paul on the project. Kresge’s FreshLo grant is getting the design off the ground and shoring up fundraising efforts for the construction phase.

“We’re not a food desert, but what we consume is mostly from outside the area,” Thoj says. “And we feel like a large part of that could be produced within our neighborhood.”

The hope is for the food hub to help people in the Frogtown neighborhood gain economic benefits from all aspects of the food chain—from selling produce to making specialty food products to opening a restaurant—and keeping the entire food chain local.

“Grocery stores are essential to a lot of neighborhoods; however, just concentrating on retail means you’re only looking at the tail end of the system and it’s hard to make money there,” Stacey Barbas, a senior program officer at the Kresge Foundation, says. “Grocery stores operate on thin margins. Food-oriented development can also support value-added parts of the food chain—processing and distribution—so they’re more likely to build community wealth. And when done well, it’s reflective of the cultures that live in the neighborhoods. A Safeway in San Francisco will look the same as a Safeway in Seattle, but food-oriented development can and should reflect the character and culture of the neighborhood.”

By keeping as much wealth in the community as possible, Thoj hopes that Little Mekong will thrive for generations. “For us, the scariest thing would be walking up and down the main street not recognizing the character of our neighborhood,” he says. “That’s when we’ll have failed and everyone fails. Maybe property values go up, but if they’re not owned by locals that’s our worst nightmare.”

The Morgan Mini mart on Chicago’s south side is part of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network’s initiative to bring healthier food to corner stores.
Courtesy IMAN

Re-anchoring community through corner stores

Since 1997, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) has been working to advance equity and social justice in Englewood, a neighborhood in Chicago’s south side. The organization’s efforts against violence, poverty, and a lack of job opportunities are wide ranging: It operates health clinics, provides job training for court-involved individuals, and is a political advocate for returning citizens. But recently, many of its efforts have revolved around corner stores, places that are neighborhood flashpoints for multiple reasons.

While the south side population is mostly black, the corner stores are usually owned by Arab immigrants, which has led to racial tension. Residents are frustrated by racial profiling and a lack of fresh and healthy food in these stores. Corner stores are also frequently the sites of gun violence.

IMAN’s Corner Store Campaign sits at the intersection of racial justice, food justice, and community-led development. It aims to mend the relationship between store proprietors and customers; helps store owners develop business models that aren’t about selling liquor, candy, and snacks; and educates customers about health and wellness. One of the campaign’s central ideas is envisioning what a better corner store looks like: it stocks fresh produce, customers and proprietors are friendly, and it’s clean and well lit.

“It’s moving beyond the transactional nature of a corner store and turning it into a wellness hub,” Sara Hamdan, the Corner Store Campaign manager, says. “It’s thinking more actively about being in the neighborhood.”

IMAN worked with the store’s proprietor to stock fresh produce and healthier food.
Courtesy IMAN

IMAN will use its FreshLo grant to help fund the Corner Store Campaign and also develop a “prototype” corner store that includes the services, amenities, and inventory that most corner stores don’t have. Hamdan describes it as a hybrid between a marketplace and a cafe, with the work of local artists adorning the walls and a job training facility on-site. IMAN is working with the architecture firm Wheeler + Kearns on the project and derived inspiration from its design for Lakeview Pantry, a food pantry on the city’s north side.

IMAN hopes that remaking corner stores will have ripple effects on public health, safety, and economic vitality.

“Food is an intersectional issue,” Hamdan says. “When we’re talking more broadly about community violence and we’re talking about connections to issues with police violence and mass incarceration, when we’re talking about communities that struggle with unemployment and food security, it’s all layered. Food is part of the violence of poverty.”

Mainstreaming food-oriented communities

The specific challenges in the respective communities of IMAN, the Asian Economic Development Association, and Green Opportunities are all different, but by adopting a food-oriented approach to addressing them, they’re showing how this approach works.

In El Paso, Texas, the nonprofit La Mujer Obrera is using its grant to grow more culturally specific foods on its community farm. In Athens, Georgia, the Athens Land Trust is using its grant to transform a historic school into a community hub with a marketplace and incubator for food businesses. The Sankofa Community Development Corporation in New Orleans is using its grant to develop a community-led teaching kitchen to educate people about healthy eating.

The Kresge Foundation hopes that more national attention to these grassroots efforts will help the organizations double down on their efforts—and perhaps spark similar initiatives elsewhere.

“The impact can be viewed in multiple levels,” Kabel says. “We’d like to see a positive impact in the neighborhoods where the organizations are working: new economic opportunities, improved access to healthy and affordable food, and art and culture woven into community development. So that’s one level. At the ‘field’ level, we’re hoping to illustrate new approaches to community development that can be adapted and adopted elsewhere in ways that can give residents true influence over how development happens to reflect their culture and improve health.”

Correction: A previous edition of the story incorrectly stated the number of people who have graduated from Green Opportunities’ training programs; it’s 200 since 2012, not 250.