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A Food Revolution in the City

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.

City Centre Market
The popular City Centre Farmers’ Market in Edmonton, Alberta

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.

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The Death and Rebirth of Industry and Manufacturing

They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back

Bruce Springsteen, My Hometown

Industrial jobs are not dead. Certainly, many have been lost – shipped overseas, lost to the great recession, or eliminated due to automation or increased efficiency. To follow the dominant public narrative, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking industrial jobs in North America are a relic of the 20th century. Whether it’s the conversion of former ports and industrial lands to residential/commercial space and amenities, the hollowing out of former industrial centers in the Midwest, or pop culture narratives from artists like Bruce Springsteen, the focus has been on what’s been lost, not what’s been preserved, enhanced, and created.

“We have a PR problem”

One of the panelists in the Industrial 2.0 session noted this, that people don’t realize industry still offers well-paying jobs in growth sectors. Keynote speaker Roland Martin, of Fortune 200 Company Illinois Tool Works, echoed this. Dan Swinney of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council noted that not one career counselor he spoke to would refer a kid to a manufacturing job. As I tweeted yesterday, I was surprised to find out that manufacturing is one of the 5 fastest growing industries in Chicago. The other 4 – health, education, hospitality, and culinary – feel rather intuitive, but manufacturing came as a surprise.

Industry and manufacturing is changing, not disappearing entirely. My belief is that the misconception also comes in part from the fact that many of the most recognizable household items – things and brand names we come across regularly – are manufactured (entirely or in part) overseas. We’re much more aware of kitchen items that say ‘Made in China’ than we are about automotive or electronic parts whose origin we’ll never seen branded. For example, Roland Martin spoke about how and where in the United States his company manufactures parts for the iPhone and electronic devices. My home region of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada has an economy driven in large part by the production of oil field parts and supplies. Most consumers will never encounter these in their everyday life.

My inference from listening to the panelists and keynote speakers is that manufacturing and industrial jobs will continue to exist, but they’re going to continue to evolve and change. You can still have a successful, productive career in this sector, but what’s required to do so is different than 50 years ago. Instead of learning the trade of one factory, or aspect of an industry, core competencies and skills that can serve one well in different types of manufacturing will be key. It’s going to be less about learning a specific, rote task, and more about having skills that allow one to adapt and evolve, just as industry and manufacturing do.

Government and education policies need to align with, and encourage this. Panelists talked about land banking, repurposing of old industrial lands, and other strategies governments are pursuing successfully at the macro level for a region. It’s now time to apply those same principles to the current and future industrial/manufacturing work force, ensuring they thrive alongside the industry.