14 min

The Power & Potential of Co-ops for Economic Development Through Food The Leading Voices in Food

    • Health & Fitness

Today, we're talking to a change management leader, a person who is advancing social justice through food co-ops. Darnell Adams co-leads Firebrand Cooperative, a new consultancy helping nonprofits, cooperatives, and other socially responsible organizations throughout the US. In a recent article, she wrote for "Nonprofit Quarterly" that a food co-op isn't a luxury item, but the lifeblood of their communities.
Interview Summary
 
So let's jump right in. You've written that a new wave of leaders is organizing in communities, Black communities, Latinx, Indigenous, rural, immigrant communities, and communities lacking in wealth overall. How have your experiences led your work in supporting economic development through food?
 
Yeah, it's such an interesting journey I've been on. So I'm going to step back just a minute to say how I landed in the places that I've started to work. Certainly my interest in food is shaped by my experience in the world and my childhood experiences. My mother, who is an immigrant, my father, who's an immigrant - their relation to food and the African diaspora. I grew up understanding what food meant in terms of identity, in terms of nutrition, etc. So I had my own thoughts about food certainly from those experiences, and also had my own business as a caterer for many years. I had that understanding of what it means to be a small business, and launching a business and all of the trials and tribulations of doing that. And in the process of running that business I came to find a location where I could situate that business in a way that was affordable to me using a shared kitchen space that was located in Boston, Massachusetts. Then I really started to develop a broader understanding of some of the economic considerations, not just mine, but many of the producers were having in terms of how to run a viable business, and what supports were needed or missing in their experiences. It's kind of a long story and I won't get into it how it happened, but it so happened that at a certain point, I began a new career as managing director of that shared space kitchen. That was a whole leap in terms of thinking about not just my small catering business, but supporting many businesses, whether they be food trucks, caterers, producers of something that was a shelf staple product or something like that. Many of those business owners were immigrants, many were women or otherwise not having the amount of capital to be able to just open up their own spaces.
 
Tell us a little bit more, if you would, about the kitchen itself and what kind of work it did?
 
Oh, sure. So the kitchen, and there are now several across the country, but at that time, there were very few of them. It was a shared space that was initially run by a CDFI - a community development funding institution - who was able to obtain funding to open up a kitchen space knowing that there were many people who wanted to run food businesses, or start a food business, but were unable to because of the cost of actually renting out a space. They needed space to use and that would be inspected by inspectional services and given the green light to work and sell their products. So the kitchen did actually aid some caterers and other people who were working underground in their own houses, not being certified, etc., and therefore not able to expand their business. The idea of shared kitchens is really, really important. Certainly it was the way that I was able to launch my business and able to run it for some years because it was affordable to me. And at that one location was able to grow the business and actually move the location to a bigger space. I have a really long story there, but it's CommonWealth Kitchen in Boston and it is still thriving. They were able to actually buy the building recently, and the space that is still producing quite a lot of businesses that are thriving and also moving into their own spaces. The kitchen is able to give the support,

Today, we're talking to a change management leader, a person who is advancing social justice through food co-ops. Darnell Adams co-leads Firebrand Cooperative, a new consultancy helping nonprofits, cooperatives, and other socially responsible organizations throughout the US. In a recent article, she wrote for "Nonprofit Quarterly" that a food co-op isn't a luxury item, but the lifeblood of their communities.
Interview Summary
 
So let's jump right in. You've written that a new wave of leaders is organizing in communities, Black communities, Latinx, Indigenous, rural, immigrant communities, and communities lacking in wealth overall. How have your experiences led your work in supporting economic development through food?
 
Yeah, it's such an interesting journey I've been on. So I'm going to step back just a minute to say how I landed in the places that I've started to work. Certainly my interest in food is shaped by my experience in the world and my childhood experiences. My mother, who is an immigrant, my father, who's an immigrant - their relation to food and the African diaspora. I grew up understanding what food meant in terms of identity, in terms of nutrition, etc. So I had my own thoughts about food certainly from those experiences, and also had my own business as a caterer for many years. I had that understanding of what it means to be a small business, and launching a business and all of the trials and tribulations of doing that. And in the process of running that business I came to find a location where I could situate that business in a way that was affordable to me using a shared kitchen space that was located in Boston, Massachusetts. Then I really started to develop a broader understanding of some of the economic considerations, not just mine, but many of the producers were having in terms of how to run a viable business, and what supports were needed or missing in their experiences. It's kind of a long story and I won't get into it how it happened, but it so happened that at a certain point, I began a new career as managing director of that shared space kitchen. That was a whole leap in terms of thinking about not just my small catering business, but supporting many businesses, whether they be food trucks, caterers, producers of something that was a shelf staple product or something like that. Many of those business owners were immigrants, many were women or otherwise not having the amount of capital to be able to just open up their own spaces.
 
Tell us a little bit more, if you would, about the kitchen itself and what kind of work it did?
 
Oh, sure. So the kitchen, and there are now several across the country, but at that time, there were very few of them. It was a shared space that was initially run by a CDFI - a community development funding institution - who was able to obtain funding to open up a kitchen space knowing that there were many people who wanted to run food businesses, or start a food business, but were unable to because of the cost of actually renting out a space. They needed space to use and that would be inspected by inspectional services and given the green light to work and sell their products. So the kitchen did actually aid some caterers and other people who were working underground in their own houses, not being certified, etc., and therefore not able to expand their business. The idea of shared kitchens is really, really important. Certainly it was the way that I was able to launch my business and able to run it for some years because it was affordable to me. And at that one location was able to grow the business and actually move the location to a bigger space. I have a really long story there, but it's CommonWealth Kitchen in Boston and it is still thriving. They were able to actually buy the building recently, and the space that is still producing quite a lot of businesses that are thriving and also moving into their own spaces. The kitchen is able to give the support,

14 min

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