I’m attending the Kellogg Food and Society Conference outside of Phoenix, which is notable in a couple of ways. The meeting gathers about 550 leaders from the non-profit world - everybody from policy wonks working on the Farm Bill to those working with farmworkers, in urban community gardens, on immigration or with inner city healthy food initiatives.
Secondly, it’s being held at the luxurious Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort, a complex in the middle of the Gila River Indian Community which is actually owned by Indian tribes. The upscale nature of the place is certainly jarring for non-profits more accustomed to pinching pennies (Kellogg is picking up the expenses). But notably, the entire place was designed with Indian themes - artwork, bedspreads, even the architecture - and it provides a lot of jobs at all levels to the local Pima and Maricopa tribes.
Unlike the focus of much of my past work, the people at the conference are coming at things from the not-for-profit angle. Curiously, though, I’ve been engaged workshops where the overt theme was business - how do you grow local food? How do you bring more food to people? What’s needed in distribution? What type of ventures can make this happen? There’s a recognition that business can do this, but it’s business incubated or formed by non-profits for clear social goals.
Given the discussion, it’s clear these people would benefit from engaged business people on their boards, as advisers, if they’re not there already. In the food world, at least the organic wing of it, there are many people who have dealt with the same issues, who have gone from small to big, who have done so with clear missions. While those businesses might not always have a social component, the veterans of those paths could offer tools and strategies to get the business right -- so that it provides a solid foundation for the social goals these non-profits want to pursue.
It’s also clear from the discussions I’m having that the food movement is out-growing the farmer direct models that have been extolled for so long (farmers’ markets, CSAs). The new emphasis is on wholesale models that are necessary to bring more food to places where people actually shop - like supermarkets. That’s the next wave. But I will be interested to see how non-profits play a role in tackling this scaling issue, or whether they will be a footnote among the efforts of profit-minded entrepreneurs.
I would also note that the profit-based companies involved in the food world have largely sidestepped social justice issues. Environment, animal rights (to a degree), worker participation (to a degree), fair prices for farmers (to a degree) find a place, but social justice and affordability don’t hold an equal place at the table. That is, for people on the bottom income rungs. What businesses are starting grocery stores in inner city low-income areas - those food deserts we hear about so often? Can it be done? Or is the food bank, or government-led effort the only solution? I mean, the model exists for the unhealthy kind of store in these neighborhoods - liquor and convenience stores. Why can’t there be a healthy store model? Or maybe I just don’t know about ones that exist.
Maybe that would be a source of non-profit/for-profit partnerships going ahead, much like my impression of the economic development provided by this resort. It’s transforming the community (as one of several economic ventures) creating a social outcome but with the tools and methods of business.