Slow Money: The movement for sustainable financing options for food and farming enterprises in the East Bay
By Kristina Sepetys | Photo by Stacy Ventura
It’s the end of a perfect fall day and the Northern California chapter of Slow Money is calling to order its monthly meeting in a conference room in the David Brower Center in downtown Berkeley. The open meeting, run by committed volunteers, has drawn a diverse and convivial group: a former banker, a UC Davis graduate student in environmental studies, an entrepreneur seeking funding for a culinary marketplace in Albany, a Berkeley student co-op leader, real estate developers, land trust directors from Brentwood and Marin, a mobile slaughterhouse entrepreneur from Petaluma (announced to cheers and applause), venture capitalists, and others.
I introduce myself saying that I’m writing a piece on Slow Money and sustainable financing in the East Bay and that I’m at the meeting to better understand what Slow Money is about. Everyone laughs. “When you figure it out, let us know,” a woman quips, eliciting more laughter.
Even if the particulars of the organization aren’t yet ironed out, Slow Money is clearly a key player in raising awareness of funding needs for sustainable food enterprises. The group has also laid groundwork for a network to connect sustainable food and farming enterprises and investors in the Bay Area.
What is Slow Money?
“Slow Money” is a term and organization established in 2008 by Woody Tasch, former CEO of Investors Circle, following publication of his book by the same name. Tasch’s Slow Money Alliance takes its name and inspiration from the Slow Food movement, which originated in Italy 20 years ago to promote a reawakening to the value of regional and artisanal food production.
Unfortunately, farmers and small business entrepreneurs working to bring such products and foods to market frequently can’t get the loans or other development funds available to larger food enterprises that can offer a higher return on investment over a shorter period of time, with what some investors perceive to be less risk.
“Lack of capital often limits the ability of sustainable food producers to plan, launch, maintain, or grow their projects,” says Elizabeth Ü, executive director of Finance for Food. Ü, a former staff member of San Francisco–based RSF Social Finance and erstwhile project manager at Slow Money, adds, “If they can’t secure appropriate funding, a business can’t move forward. Such failures can contribute to critical gaps in the food system.”
Patient Capital for Sustainable Business
According to David Corson-Knowles, associate director of Slow Money, the organization’s mission is “to build a national network connected to local networks and to develop new financial products and services to provide for investment in small food enterprises and local food systems.” There are currently more than 14 regional chapters. A key objective is getting a million Americans to invest 1 percent of their assets in local food systems within a decade.
The Slow Money movement has been helpful in framing the investment problems sustainable food businesses face and also in proposing solutions. “Slow Money is making a great case for why certain food and farming companies are critical for amending and building the food system despite being unable to provide a competitive rate of return, an investment problem that the traditional market hasn’t been able to solve,” says Brahm Ahmadi, founder of the Oakland-based People’s Grocery and CEO of People’s Community Market. “They’ve helped me to access a network and many, many great contacts.”
In his book, Woody Tasch reasons that although an investment in a sustainable food enterprise might offer a comparatively lower return, the difference is offset by the benefit gained from improving individual and community access to healthier and better-quality food resources. Craig Wichner is an example of an investor who, as he says, is “personally willing to sacrifice a little return to have organic farmland close to home.”
Wichner, who hails from Berkeley, is co-founder of Farmland LP, a 30-year fund that buys conventional farmland and converts it to organic. “Agricultural land, particularly land close to cities with good water sources, is a great stable store of value. Farmland develops a cash flow by leasing the land to farmers and also through the land’s appreciation.”
Wichner thinks there is a tradeoff between sustainability goals and investment returns. “In addition to the investment return, I’m also looking for a social return, a positive benefit to my local community. We’re currently looking at several potential acquisitions in the East Bay.”
The good news is that a growing number and variety of organizations like Slow Money are helping small food businesses to understand and tap into funding. “Slow Money has done an excellent job raising awareness about the issues and building a brand that people can understand. But it’s also important to give credit to all the organizations that are doing great work to help connect the food-based businesses and social entrepreneurs with capital, some of which pre-date Slow Money,” says Elizabeth Ü.
Several of these groups have East Bay ties, as Ü details: “The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), a national organization that was for years staffed almost entirely by East Bay residents, has excellent programs addressing local food systems and community capital. East Bay–based Cutting Edge Capital is playing a very important role in providing consulting services to sustainable enterprises who don’t want to get a bank loan or work with venture capitalists.”
Other organizations, such as RSF Social Finance, are advising and funding. “In the East Bay, RSF is assisting Numi Tea, Revolution Foods, and People’s Grocery with loans and grants,” according to Gary Sprague, communications manager at RSF.
Financing can take different forms, from straightforward grants and loans to more complicated investment arrangements and vehicles. Successful financing depends upon a strong understanding of the vehicles and their fit with a company’s purpose. “Not all investors have the same motivations or expectations for wanting to invest. Each food system entrepreneur launches their business based upon a particular set of values. Finding a match between fundraiser and financier can require effort,” explains Elizabeth Ü, who is writing Capital Cookbook, a finance guide for sustainable food and farming business owners. (See Raising Dough by Elizabeth Ü.)
“If an entrepreneur accepts money without carefully examining the long-term implications of the terms they’re agreeing to, they may find themselves in a position where they have to compromise their values in order to return that money to the investors. In these cases, they’d have been better off bootstrapping,” Ü advises.
What Qualifies as a Slow Money or Sustainable Food Business?
The fundamental values of Slow Money are: soil fertility; carrying capacity; sense of place; care of the commons; cultural, ecological, and economic health and diversity; and nonviolence. “Nurture capital” is another term Tasch uses. “We’re looking for food system companies that really want to do something beautiful with the food system and to do something valuable in their community,” says Corson-Knowles. “We’re not solely focused on sustainability, though that is one of the values. It’s about putting more back into the soil and into our local communities than we take out of them.”
Although qualifying criteria are not yet fully developed, Slow Money has begun building a database of local projects seeking investment. Among the East Bay enterprises on their list is Soul Food Farm in Vacaville, which is seeking money for a project to include organic grains in pastured animal feed. Another is a project by Joyce Sigman, a very active Slow Money committee leader, who is hoping “to identify some venture capital partners” for her Green Market Lane, a food and beverage destination planned for Albany that will include restaurants, markets, and cafés, all selling locally produced organic and sustainable products.
Sustainable businesses and their investors frequently use the term “triple bottom line” to refer to the social and ecological—and not simply economic—criteria by which an organization’s success is measured. Often termed “social enterprises,” triple bottom line businesses deliver goods and services, and support themselves with revenue, in contrast to traditional nonprofit entities, which depend upon yearly grants for operating capital. Many social entrepreneurs are keen to have their undertakings recognized as for-profit businesses rather than nonprofits.
A Visionary Project
Easy access to healthy, quality food products is not universal in the food-savvy East Bay. Dwellers in some of the most heavily populated inner-city areas might find only a liquor store offering a limited supply of food products at significantly marked-up prices in their neighborhood. People’s Grocery, Brahm Ahmadi’s West Oakland nonprofit, operates the Mobile Market grocery truck and runs a variety of food- and nutrition-education programs. They point out that West Oakland has more than 30,000 residents and no full-service grocery store. Rockridge, by contrast, has one such store for every 4,333 people.
If there’s a point Ahmadi is passionate about, it’s the misconception around demand for healthy food in urban areas. “People who aren’t familiar with West Oakland or its residents assume that these people aren’t interested in quality meat, dairy, or fresh produce. They think there’s a prevalence of junk food stores because that’s what residents want. But what we see and hear again and again is that people want the same fresh, quality, affordable food choices as middle-class or suburban communities. And they’re willing to spend for it.”
Ahmadi is working to change things for West Oakland residents with an ambitious and visionary project intended to illustrate how enterprises that may not fit the usual investor models and metrics can offer great transformative potential for the food system.
Ahmadi got his start organizing in urban neighborhoods around environmental justice issues. That work led him to found People’s Grocery. Along the way he also earned an MBA. Deliberate and articulate, he frequently offers data, market analyses, and mapping studies to support his ideas.
Ahmadi realized that despite the success of and strong local support for People’s Grocery, “the small food projects that characterize the community food movement can’t serve the large levels of unmet food demand that exist in under-served neighborhoods.” West Oakland resident Aeesha Clottey, who has been watching Ahmadi at work in her community for almost 20 years, agrees. “People’s Grocery is helpful, but it’s not a substitute for a full-size community market.”
Recognizing that systemic change requires a different strategy, Ahmadi has stepped away from People’s Grocery to launch People’s Community Market, which will be a full-service, for-profit green grocery and market serving low-income residents in West Oakland with healthy and affordable food. The market is planned to occupy a 12,000-square-foot space in a currently abandoned 1950s-era shopping center at the corner of West Grand and Market Street.
It doesn’t seem that establishing a grocery market offering fresh produce and healthy food options would be such a big deal, especially in a heavily populated area where there are so few currently. But it’s a bold move. Supermarkets in inner-city areas have very different operational profiles from their counterparts in suburban or wealthier urban areas. Security needs can be higher. Shoppers buy less at a visit. Traditional advertising and marketing channels aren’t as effective in reaching these communities, where informal communications are more the norm. And there can be post-industrial contamination or unique regulatory issues to contend with. Large-scale supermarket operators don’t have models to serve these environments and for the most part don’t appear to be interested in developing them. According to a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, City Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, who represents West Oakland, said she has approached Trader Joe’s and Safeway, and neither is interested in putting in a store there.
Still in an early phase of development, People’s Community Market is facing the financing challenges confronting any startup. With no track record and a high-risk profile, the rate of return on investment is likely to be comparatively low, and profits may take longer to develop. “Studies have shown that it takes two to three years longer to develop a grocery in these areas than in suburban areas. This can be a deal-killer when it comes to seeking financing,” says Ahmadi. “We’re definitely pursuing foundations, but our greatest traction for funding is with traditional sources. We’re seeing the strongest interest from a fair number of angel investors, investment firms and banks, and community banks in the Bay Area.”
Ahmadi is convinced that there’s sufficient demand to support a for-profit market and he’s determined to prove that inner-city markets offer a viable business opportunity and can be served profitably. Ed Hemmat recently opened ProducePro on San Pablo in West Oakland. Roughly a third the size of the proposed People’s Community Market, the store offers fresh produce and other goods. But it’s just one store.
“The West Oakland food market is too large and underserved for any single store to satisfy all needs,” says Ahmadi. “We estimate that 60 to 70 percent of West Oakland’s annual food dollars are not captured within community boundaries. This translates into a leakage of $35 to $45 million annually, a large-enough market opportunity to support the financial and social success of multiple stores.”
Aeesha Clottey says she is like many West Oakland residents, who will travel outside the neighborhood to buy food, usually to North Oakland and Berkeley, but sometimes to points even further away. “I’m excited about People’s Community Market because we want a place to buy decent, wholesome food. A place where we can sit outside and enjoy the community.” Another West Oakland resident, Carmelita Taylor, who has participated in the People’s Grocery cooking classes, used to ride the bus to Berkeley Bowl or Berkeley Whole Foods to buy food to feed her children; she now has a car. “Pulling a shopping cart, changing buses, carrying bags—I’m not sure how I did it,” she says. “But there are people who can’t leave the neighborhood, like my disabled neighbor, who is in a wheelchair.” The money spent on public transportation or gas (nearly 5 percent of food expenses, Ahmadi estimates) could be better spent on local food purchases.
“People’s Community Market’s ultimate long-range goal, beyond opening and operating a community food store, is to support and engender a robust and diverse community food system involving numerous actors across the food chain,” says Ahmadi. “To achieve this goal there must be collaboration with many nonprofit and for-profit partners and the spawning of numerous entrepreneurial efforts, like ProducePro, Mandela Food Coop, and many others. I would much prefer to see numerous independent stores open up that are committed to and care about West Oakland than to see a single large chain operator open up that is strictly in pursuit of profits and may, in the long run, not benefit the community’s health or economy.”
“People’s Community Market presents an opportunity for a grocery store to play a role in rebuilding the community’s cultural fabric and relationship to food,” says Ahmadi. It also has the potential, according to Corson-Knowles, to be “a role model project showing what the power of Slow Money and free enterprise can do to transform our broken food system.” Aeesha Clottey agrees. “We really want to see Brahm be successful.”
Kristina Sepetys has written extensively on economic and environmental policy issues for many publications including the Los Angeles Business Journal and the Journal of Environmental Law and Practice. She lives in Berkeley with her family and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
People’s Community Market (Community Foods Market)