The food economy is going through a transition; some would call it a revolution. The term revolution pops up a lot, from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s food revolution (bringing healthy food back to working class communities), to the innovative, fast-growing company Revolution Foods, which brings healthy food into schools.
We heard from Revolution Foods co-founder and CEO Kristin Groos Richmond over lunch today at Urban 2.0. She talked about the importance of bringing healthy food into schools, in particular inner city schools. A phenomenon that’s garnered attention in recent years is that of food deserts, where local residents don’t have a grocery store nearby, and struggle to access healthy, non-processed food. In bringing quality food (and teaching good nutritional and cooking knowledge to students and parents alike), Revolution Foods is helping students and families become more healthy and productive (teachers report better student performance), along with teaching invaluable life skills.
Another revolution has been the shift to growing food on a larger scale inside the city. Food growth in the city for the past several decades has been a largely private, small-scale endeavor, people growing food for their own supply in their backyards, balconies, and in small community gardens. If farms were found inside the city limits, they were on the outskirts, fighting against the ever-encroaching growth of suburbia. Recently, this trend has been turned on its head. With Detroit leading the way, shrinking (usually former industrial) cities are converting abandoned tracts of land to agricultural purposes. Cities like Cleveland are pursuing this strategy as well.
A parallel development is happening in more affluent cities. Food is grown just outside the city, but many aspects of the food economy occur inside the city. Cities like Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, and Washington, DC are leading the way. Some of the outputs in both struggling and thriving urban centers are an increase in farmers’ markets, food trucks and carts, and independent, locally owned restaurants and food producers.
This strikes me as a smart economic strategy for regions that have an existing agriculture base nearby (or one with lots of vacant, underutilized land). Food is a growth industry. Consumers are willing to pay more for quality (locally grown) food, either at a market or a restaurant. There will always be a demand for food, making it a more stable investment than a commodity that will experience more elasticity. An exciting, quality restaurant and food scene is a big attraction for residents (as quality of life) and tourists (as an experience). On a holistic level, it creates jobs in the local community, and smart food production strategies learned on the job can also transfer to one’s home life, encouraging healthier, better living.
This isn’t to say everyone should shop local all the time (there are good reasons against doing so). But maximizing a region’s potential for food output can be a catalyst for growth and success.