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Community Food Enterprise

Overview of a study of two dozen locally-owned businesses, including conclusions. One business presents their case study.

January 21, 2010: Community Food Enterprise


To many, local food is exclusively about proximity, with consumers demanding higher quality food grown, caught, processed, cooked, and sold by people they know and trust. But an equally important part of local food is local ownership of food businesses. An innovative report looks at the full range of locally owned businesses involved in food, whether they are small or big, whether they are primary producers or manufacturers or retailers, whether their focus is local or global markets. We call these businesses community food enterprises (CFEs).

A detailed field report on the performance of 24 CFEs, half inside the United States and half international, the project shows that CFEs represent a huge diversity of legal forms, scales, activities, and designs. Are CFEs replicable?  The authors believe the answer is “yes,” especially if the successful strategies revealed in their study are widely communicated and adopted.

To that end, John Fisk, Director of the Wallace Center at Winrock International and CFE co-project director lay the foundation of the discussion by explaining the origins and underlying assumptions of the study. Lead author and co-director of the study, Michael Shuman, Director of Research and Economic Development at Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), present the major findings of the work, with a particular emphasis on scaling up good food domestically. To ground the theory with the practical, Mike Lorentz, visionary co-owner of Lorentz Meats (one of the featured CFEs), presents the story of how it is possible to be highly successful while serving the seemingly competing needs of large and small ranchers. In addition to other high praise, his meat processing plant’s commitment to transparency and humane slaughter earned commendation in Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

Webinar Recording




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In-Webinar Written Q&A Transcript

Q: Can I please have a contact for the Southeast? (Atlanta) - I missed this.

A: We don't have CFEs in Atlanta, but of course there's Association of Cooperatives in Albany, GA


Q: where did the Detroit numbers and graphic come from?

A: Go to the web site of the Fair Food Network, and you'll be able to download it.  Or e-mail me at


Q: Well I will, but I've also been involved in the loans they needed and have reviewed the finances when they went out for money. I'm surprised you use them for your example when there are so many other excellent and financially solid coops out there.

A: Also keep in mind that we chose our case studies three years ago, and even then we didn't choose companies based on financial strength.


Q: How can we get these case studies? I missed that part.

A: All case studies, the full book, as well as other resources are available at


Q: this is a really simplistic explanation of the retail cooperative structure - way simple. Weavers' Street has financial problems due to large losses and small capital base.

A: Actually, Weavers Street had a very good last year relative to its competition.  It's also expanding its capital base with further contributions from its 12,000 members.


Q: That may be so but they would be out of business if not for emergency inflows of $$ from other members of the cooperative network around the country. What do you mean relative to competition? Do you mean sales increases? Only part of the story.

A: Not true.  You should look at their annual report.  They had a reserve to cover last year's toughest months.  But still, they need to replenish their capital locally


Q: I'm confused about the international Cargill example.  Are there values inherent in international large CFEs,  e.g., fair wages, health and safety training, other values to protect against exploitation?

A: It's fair to say that many of the international case studies were chosen for reasons besides there social performance, and then we discovered what they in fact were doing -- often an impressive bunch of activities.  In the case of Cargills, it has worked hard to create markets for low-income Sri Lankens and works with its farmers to improve their water and energy efficiency.  It also runs a terrific program training entrepreneurs inside the company....


Q: or other granting organizations who are interested in supporting initiatives like these?

A: Keep in mind that one reason we focused on ENTERPRISES was to get beyond the very limited coffers of foundations.  In all of the enterprises we studied, except Appalachian Sustainable Development, private capital was the sole source -- sometimes a for-profit investors, sometimes as coop members, sometimes as government investors (in the Malawi example).  That said, there is a network of about 30 or so foundations within Environmental Grantmakers that focus on food.  Kellogg and Gates are the biggest players, but there are a bunch of smaller foundations operating regionally and locally.


Q: Are you aware of and can you post on your website USDA Grants available for projects such as these? (if you haven't already - sorry if I missed that).

A: yes we are aware we can do that .  it has been a function of time.  There are a number of loan and grant programs that fit. 


Q: re: domestic cases in study, why are so many east/midwest? Alternatively, why so few west of the Mississippi? No Pacific NW, either? Was this a methodological choice or just happenstance?

A: With hundreds of choices and a variety of critieria it was hard to really balance geography.  Also enterprises had to be willing to open ttheir books to us and spend some time being interviewed etc.  In short they had to see it as an opportunity and not a burden.


Q: Somewhat ironic that the Gates Foundation would be considered to be environmental with regard to their food related activities. Their proposed agenda in Africa is anything but environmentally or socially beneficial or sustainable.

A: The foundation is not of one mind (though it seems that way to the outside), and our work will hopefully provide further support to those inside who want the community enterprise approach to equal the new-green-revolution approach...


Q: re: climate effects, don't conflate local with less emissions. All things being equal that would likely be true, but transportation methods are the main effect, and the local networks could reasonably be expected to use smaller, less efficient, more polluting trucks. Shipping miles are not a great measure: life cycle assessments should be highlighted as appropriate tools.

A: Good point. As with all our systems, local transport needs to be ""greened"" based upon the service it is designed to provide: local distribution.  Right now to meet this need we are not using an optimal system but what is left after the system has been created for national distribution. "


Q: In Metro KC, GNFF - a founding member of NGFN is also working on food access.

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