California Organization Takes on an Ambitious Goal: Restructuring the Entire Food System
December 26, 2013 | Jenny Smiechowski
Across the country, small-scale local and sustainable food enterprises are emerging: urban farms, food hubs, community gardens, and more. All of these operations, however small, help create a new, more localized agricultural paradigm. But in order to overhaul our entire food system, President and Co-founder of The Food Commons Larry Yee says we need to think much bigger.
“Our overall objective is to demonstrate a whole new food system for local and regional food,” said Yee. “I don’t know of anyone else who is actually trying to create a whole system with all the necessary infrastructure for a highly effective, efficient local food system. There are people who are working on pieces of it, but we were crazy enough to try to tackle the whole thing.”
In order to achieve this objective, Yee and fellow co-founder Jim Cochran have established The Food Commons model which is based on three infrastructural components: the trust, the community corporation, and the community fund. Yee and Cochran hope to see this model implemented in communities across the country and, eventually, the world in order to create a more equitable and sustainable food system.
The first component is the trust, a nonprofit trust that acquires land and other physical assets and leases them to farmers and local food entrepreneurs at reasonable rates. The purpose of the trust is to provide aspiring farmers and entrepreneurs with a means of getting started without carrying the burden of major debt. The assets owned by the trust are held in perpetuity, meaning that when a lessee moves on or retires, the land or physical asset they occupied is available for the next generation of local food entrepreneurs to assume.
The second component is the community corporation, which serves as the model’s business entity. The community corporation encompasses all Food Commons enterprises including farms, processing plants, retail stores, restaurants, grocers, and more. Yee hopes this aspect of model will help remedy inequities that exist in the current food system by providing farmers and food workers with fair treatment and compensation while still providing customers with high-quality, affordable products.
“By creating a vertically-integrated system from farms all the way to retail stores under one business entity we can control transaction costs from player to player, eke out efficiency, and better distribute profits so that all of the players are treated fairly,” says Yee.
The third component is the community fund, a mechanism for local food financing and investment. It will consist of nonprofit financing organizations which have been federally designated as Community Development Financial Institutions. These institutions will make loans to Food Commons enterprises and provide traditional banking services to the Food Commons community.
The Food Commons has begun implementing its model in three locations: Fresno, California; Atlanta, Georgia; and Auckland, New Zealand.
Through funding from generous foundation grants, The Food Commons has made significant progress in Fresno. The organization has completed a business plan and has established the Fresno Food Commons trust. They are working toward establishing the Fresno community corporation and the community fund.
The Food Commons is currently undertaking a substantial fundraising campaign to continue their efforts in Fresno.
“We have started a $6 million capital campaign to make the necessary acquisitions—to buy a farm and storefront properties—in order to start our business,” says Yee. “We have a development team in place and we are working hard to do all the things we need to do to actually start the business in Fresno.”
In implementing the Food Commons model, Yee says they have a hard time getting investors to see the local food movement as something with large-scale investment potential. Often, Yee says, investors have been exposed to small local food projects, which require only limited capital, and don’t realize the type of financing needed to truly tackle the massive problems that underlie our current food system.
“The challenge is to better match the needs with the investment dollars we know are out there and to change the mindset of the people who have the money about what’s necessary in order to create a more sustainable food system in this country,” Yee says.
In the coming years, Yee hopes he can get people to realize that our current food system is a large-scale problem that requires a large-scale solution. He aims to successfully start three to four Food Commons prototype communities, so these communities can demonstrate that it is possible to entirely transform our food system.
“This is a very bold and ambitious undertaking,” says Yee. “We are going to need a lot of help from a lot of sectors to succeed, and as we actually try to develop a Food Commons system for a particular community, we know there are a lot of different challenges that have to be met.”