From Silver Bullets to Golden Food Systems


It's always been interesting to me how most Americans look at fixing problems. For almost any you can imagine, there is a specifically designed and marketed solution—otherwise known as the silver bullet. Gained too much weight? Join this club, or take this pill, or read this book, or eliminate this ingredient from your diet. We've learned from events like the tanking of the Atkins Diet and deaths from popular diet pills that these oversimplified approaches don't work.

The same approach holds true for problems that plague our most disadvantaged rural and urban communities. We have seen millions of dollars spent on underserved issues like housing, medical services, safe playgrounds, food access, and job training. Each represents a silver bullet in its own way because they all try to address the ills of these communities through individual subjects. Just like simply eliminating carbohydrates from your diet won't provide you with good health, "job training" won't provide meaningful jobs when there are no businesses that are vibrant enough to hire people when the labor subsidy evaporates.

One problem these communities face that is finally getting the traction it deserves is lack of food access. And with all the attention shifting toward this topic, supermarkets have become the new silver bullet—one that is attracting a lot of attention and taxpayer dollars.

This is a bit of head-scratcher for me. I understand the ease of the low-hanging-fruit decision in steering money in this direction. With the right amount of money and tax incentives, grocery chains can be open for business lickety-split. They do provide some jobs and, yes, there are the ever-coveted produce sections. Unfortunately, what they do not provide, in most cases, are good-paying jobs—and jobs they provide employ only a tiny percentage of overall neighborhood populations. They also do not provide the affordability that allows folks to choose to buy produce.

So after all the "new market tax credits," employment subsidies, and long-term low-interest financing melt away, what will these new supermarkets do? They will likely leave for the same reason they left the first time around—because their models won't work where families can't afford them.

But there are other models—ones that don't pretend to be magic but that can be even more effective and a lot less expensive. We've seen tremendous hope in small farmers' markets. Many of these markets have offered independently funded incentives for people on food assistance. Unlike a supermarket, a farmers' market keeps money in the local economy, because the food purchased is produced that state. The challenge is that these markets are small and cannot meet the full needs of these communities.

A potential solution would be a hybrid. Imagine a grocery store that actually offers community ownership or governance. Imagine that this grocery store buys from regional food producers instead of from across the country or from another continent. Imagine this grocery store providing contracts to local entrepreneurs who can open urban farms or businesses that buy from nearby producers to make their own pizza sauce, hummus, frozen scalloped potatoes, or collard greens. Imagine that the items in the center aisle and freezer section of a grocery store could actually be replaced with foods grown and made close to home. A business model that could also sell to hospital systems, community colleges, and other revenue- and job-generating local enterprises—all while keeping the money circulating nearby.

We would have a grocery store providing the same number of jobs, but we would also have additional jobs within the community, because the urban farm would need managers, workers, and harvesters. The processing facility needs workers to cook, package, and transport food to the store and perhaps some local restaurants and diners (while using a lot less gas than the current model). These products would reflect the cultural personality of the neighborhood, and be both delicious and in high demand.

What would it look like if some of the millions of dollars currently aimed at big-box supermarket models were offered by bid to companies or co-ops that would actually allow this type of grocery store to be built? What would the company or co-op look like?

There are talented individuals working hard on creating these models. They are open to innovative partnership-oriented approaches. Perhaps the addition of a group of mid-sized farms backed by farm credit would enrich such a partnership and keep commerce between rural and urban areas whole and vibrant.

When we look at job and career training, imagine having the opportunity to fund a training program that would actually have community-owned employers at the end of the chain. Consider the diversity and the different kinds of jobs jobs a grocery store, urban farm, and a value-added processing facility could spin off in such an environment.

Sound like a utopia? To me it sounds like an American neighborhood the way they used to work. And it sure doesn't sound like a silver bullet.