A Food-Forward Recovery

Written by Candace Damon, Derek Fleming, Danny Fuchs, and Syed Agmal Ali

Food systems and the food economy in the United States are in crisis. Before the pandemic struck, 35 million Americans were food insecure. That number has since swelled to 50 million. While grocery and restaurant delivery workers were deemed essential, promises of hazard pay faded away, and food processing plants have rivaled carceral facilities as the worst hotspots for coronavirus infection in the country. Multiple organizations estimate that about half of all restaurants have or will close permanently. Food workers are paid little, in some cases exempted from standard minimum wages, and frequently lack protection from poor workplace conditions. At the same time, most food businesses are small businesses that have provided a pathway to wealth for immigrant and low-income families. Texas’s deep freeze has demonstrated that urban food systems are as vulnerable to climate change as to pandemic. As appetites grow for local food, development pressures in fast-growing cities are squeezing out spaces for growing food, creating food products, and delivering them to consumers. Meanwhile, agriculture accounts for 10% of the nation’s carbon emissions, and food makes up a fifth of all household and commercial waste.

Addressing this crisis is central to a just and resilient recovery. The City of New York’s newly released, first ever 10-year food plan recognizes this fact. HR&A is proud to have supported development of the plan, building on several years of work at the intersection of food systems, real estate, economic development, and social justice. We worked with the NYC Mayor’s Office of Food Policy to engage food justice advocacy organizations, businesses large and small, philanthropic foundations, healthcare institutions, and growers from across the region. The commitments outlined in the 10-year plan reflect a diversity of stakeholders.

Food can bring people together – not just around dinner tables, but also to take collective action. In cities across the country, people have stepped up to share food in community fridges and distribute it through mutual aid networks. Restaurants are exploring new ways to generate demand and have been sharing notes. The diversity of stakeholders we engaged in New York City can and should be engaged in cities across the country. Here, we highlight opportunities for different types of HR&A clients to center food systems in their work to build a more just and resilient recovery.

Real estate owners, operators, and developers can:

  • Cultivate vibrant food retail experiences. The food halls that proliferated in cities in recent years will need to be reinvented post-pandemic to inspire customers to return and office workers to return downtown. The Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco, where we have been working with new owners Hudson Pacific Properties, suggests one way of doing so. What was once an inward-facing, premium-product culinary experience is poised to become an indoor/outdoor destination with more culinary options, more diverse vendors, and more variety in footprints to make the building more accessible to more entrepreneurs, complementing one of the world’s most famous farmers’ markets – a win for Bay Area residents, businesses, and visitors, as well as for shareholders.
  • Invest in (or at least promote) local hiring. When HR&A Senior Advisor Derek Fleming and chef Marcus Samuelsson opened a new outpost of renowned Harlem restaurant Red Rooster in Miami, they invested in hiring from Overtown – the “Harlem of the South” – and supporting career advancement for their hires. To date, the project has hired more than 80 individuals, most of whom are from historically marginalized communities. All hires take a four-week training program focused on hospitality sector technical skills that are transferable at the highest levels of the industry, as well as urban farming and hydroponics practices.
  • Expand food access creatively. As they engage community stakeholders, HR&A developer clients consistently hear a desire for more grocery stores, which operate at very low margins; national credit grocery tenants are therefore often difficult to attract. For some developers, partnering with food cooperatives that generate community wealth may be a viable option. In South Los Angeles, HR&A worked with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) to assess the feasibility of addressing the food access crisis in South Los Angeles through grocery retail that would employ union labor to sell food that is fresh, quality, affordable, and for which there is local demand. We established that one promising avenue was to invest in community leaders who are already addressing barriers to food access in their communities and are championing community ownership models. It’s a strategy that developers should consider, and one that public-private partnerships could incentivize or even mandate.

State and local government should:

  • Incorporate the food economy into economic development strategies. Behind the viral promotion of Rhode Island as the “calamari comeback state” at last year’s Democratic National Convention was a campaign to grow the cephalopod into a $60 million industry. Food systems and economic development policy are already intertwined in some states, but every big city and state in the union would be wise to recognize that the food economy and food justice are central to equitable economic development.
  • Create spaces for food businesses and entrepreneurship. Governments need to rethink the use of their real estate assets as a platform for food access and entrepreneurship. In Jamaica, Queens, community leaders identified a need to help food entrepreneurs graduating from a nearby incubation program find affordable spaces to launch their businesses and to bring a sit-down restaurant to fill a market gap. With $1 million in State funding, the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation retrofitted stalls at a public food market downtown to create low-cost startup space for food businesses and attracted an established restaurateur to open a new location in downtown Jamaica by providing startup capital.
  • Support the smallest entrepreneurs. Street vendors have won recent victories in New York and Los Angeles, legalizing the work of low-income, immigrant entrepreneurs. This requires reimagining both enforcement and support, recognizing that these vendors not only create meaningful value for street life and local retail success, but also are an essential part of economic development in low-income communities. HR&A is working with the Street Vendor Project to invest in green technologies that reduce the environmental footprint of the city’s 4,000 food carts and trucks and provide a safer work environment for these immigrant-owned businesses.
  • Rethink municipal governance and management of food systems. Local government agencies regulate food, manage the food supply, and purchase more food than anyone else in many cities. To make progress against goals for public health, education, economic development, and resiliency, cities must embrace government-wide efforts such as the Good Food Purchasing Program and reorganize themselves to meet these needs.

While we believe firmly that both the real estate sector and governments can do more to support stronger, more resilient, more just food systems, we also know that so much of the heavy lifting continues to fall on food advocates, nonprofits, and small businesses. There’s never been a more important time for leaders across the real estate and economic development industries to consider how they can support community-identified, -led, and -controlled models for food access and business – concepts central to the fight for food justice. We believe that the right partnerships can be a win for historically marginalized communities, for economic development, for real estate values, and for American society as a whole.