Monthly Archives: September 2014

Richmond and the Future of Local Food

Editor’s note: In May, Whole Foods announced that it was opening a new a location in Richmond, VA—a pilot city for the Thriving Cities Project. Shortly after this news, Richmond native and pastor Nelson Reveley appeared as a guest blogger on Common Place, analyzing what this development might mean for the citizens of Richmond. Here, director of Shalom Farms, Dominic Barrett offers his own perspective on the matter. 

shalom farms kids

Above: Farmers come in all ages at Shalom Farms.

I should start by noting that personally and professionally I possess a plethora of potential conflicts of interest in exploring what a Whole Foods in urban richmond means for the city, its eaters, and the food system at large. My nonprofit, Shalom Farms has received grants and support from Whole Foods. And as for the enterprises Whole Foods will likely compete with, we receive ongoing support from local grocers Ellwood Thompson and Little House Green Grocer, not to mention that I’m an active member of the yet-to-be opened Richmond Food Co-op.

It’s hard to find a true “bad guy” in the natural/organic/local food scene. The question for me is not whether Whole Foods moving in is a good thing. Rather, I am more interested in understanding the scope of the potential impact, what gaps may remain, and what models may be better solutions.

Although I have yet to see full details of the Sauer Center (proposed home of Whole Foods), it seems a fine addition to an evolving part of Richmond’s inner core. It may even, as Nelson suggests, support in a small way the viability of a much-needed Rapid Transit project connecting the city’s East and West Ends. And, as Nelson touches on, another profitable Whole Foods in our region will mean at least a percentage of those profits are likely to end up back in the community—supporting local school gardens and other worthy projects via Whole Foods’ charitable work.

Some have expressed concern over what Whole Foods might mean for the burgeoning local grocery scene. When the doors open on Ricmond’s newest Whole Foods, it will be two miles from Ellwood Thompson’s (the biggest guy on the local grocer block), three miles from Little House Green Grocer (a smaller but relatively new and promising local option), and less than one mile from where the Richmond Food Co-op plans to open a full service grocery co-op in the next two years. Without looking at any market data, my gut feeling is that Whole Foods will not pose a threat to these local establishments.

Why not? Because of the 550 and counting members of the opening co-op and the many loyal patrons of Little House and Ellwood Thompson’s. In spite of the presence of Whole Foods, many of these shoppers will continue to seek options that will both maximize the local impact of their dollars and increase their access to locally sourced products, supporting local growers and producers.

We find ourselves at a unique moment. Growing acceptance of the challenges of climate change has coincided with the trendiness and “cool factor” of the local food movement. Yet, turning these forces into brick and mortar, topsoil and tractor, can feel slow. In any given season, local vendors may one moment find themselves unable to meet customer demand for an item, yet days later unable to move a local product quickly enough. Similarly, local, sustainable farmers find themselves struggling to find viable business models, unable to scale up to meet potential institutional buyers or to pay the bills adequately by relying on direct-to-consumer sales. But for many growers, and the consumers looking for a local product they can feel good about, Whole Foods is not likely to be a game changer.

With months to go before Whole Foods opens its doors, hundreds of Richmonders have demonstrated a commitment to finding a better way: the Richmond Food Co-op. They have invested $150 each to be a part of a community driven and owned grocery option—a commitment so strong that investments are coming in even before the Co-op location has been finalized. Co-ops work because they can harness economies of scale, resulting in lower prices for consumers, larger margins for the producers, and maximum flexibility for local growers. They also allow members a voice in the decisions of the store.

However, despite the lower mark-ups made possible by a member-owned model, even co-opers like myself admit that it may be only a modest improvement for those Richmonders who lack the means—economic or transportation—to access to the highest quality, sustainably grown local produce. For many, particularly those living in the East End, South Side, and North Side, quality affordable grocery options will continue to be hard to come by. For these folks, a co-op will be a small improvement, and a Whole Foods on West Broad Street will be of little consequence. But here again, a forthcoming local business may fill in the gap.

Jim Scanlon, a 40-year veteran of the grocery business, resigned just last week from his role as Regional Vice President of Martin’s Food Marts where he oversaw all of Martin’s 34 stores in Virginia. In his new venture, he is pursuing a plan that he has been quietly developing for the better part of a decade. In 2015, he hopes to break ground on Jim’s Local Market in Richmond’s East End, less than a mile from the bulk of Richmond’s public housing units. His store will leverage his expertise and relationships in the grocery industry to provide the same variety, quality, and prices of national chains, something small independents are not typically able to do. Meanwhile, his independent community-focused store will have the freedom to source from small local providers, provide incentives for low-income shoppers, and partner with the local health experts to provide educational programming. Finally, community members will help determine how a percentage of the pre-tax profits are returned to the neighborhood.

For both the Richmond Food Co-op and Jim’s Local Market, it is the local element that provides the most promise and may be what most separates these models from a company like Whole Foods. More than ever we need locally based solutions to transform our communities, and nowhere is this more clear or powerful than with our food.

Dominic Barrett is director of Shalom Farms, an initiative of United Methodist Urban Ministries of Richmond.

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Is Portland for Slackers? An Interview With Tom Krattenmaker

MtTaborPortlandHood” by CacophonyOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Tom Krattenmaker is Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a contributing columnist for USA Today. He has just completed writing an in-depth profile of Portland for the Thriving Cities Project (anticipated publication in 2015). 


Common Place: Just this week, the New York Times published an article on the city of Portland, “Will Portland Always Be a Retirement Community for the Young?” In it, Portland is described as a sort of slacker’s paradise. Would you agree with that assessment?

Tom Krattenmaker: That’s pretty close to the truth, but I would push back on that term “slacker.” I don’t think the hip young adults crowding this city are generally lazy or directionless. Many of them are ambitious and super busy with all sorts of creative projects—maybe their bands or their art or some political cause or nonprofit they’re involved with. The “paradise” part is pretty close to the truth. I have never been in a city that comes so close to matching a certain kind of ideal. The combination of creative energy, natural beauty, liberal politics, and sustainability is really quite amazing. For some people, it’s probably more like a hell, but if you’re a certain type of person, Portland is as close to urban paradise as you’re likely to get. 

CP: In the article, a lot of attention is given to the dearth of well paying jobs with too many overeducated people. Do you see this aspect of Portland as a problem? Is there something else going on besides New York Times version of the story?

Sure, it’s a problem, but probably not of the magnitude one might think. A lot of Portland people aren’t interested in conventional jobs. The lower incomes also keep costs of living relatively low. Also mitigating this problem is the existence of an alternative artisan economy that has little interest in business as usual and in personal acquisition. These are people who create and consume hand-crafted goods and cultivate shared experiences and spaces that give them a form of “social wealth” that isn’t captured by conventional economic measures. Some will tell you that this is the upside of the scarcity of corporate headquarters in Portland. The absence of Fortune 500 companies leaves space for this kind of alternative economy to grow and flourish.

CP: You just finished writing an in-depth profile on Portland for the Thriving Cities Project. What did you learn that surprised you?

As you can tell from my answers above, I’m a fan of these “Portlandia” aspects of our city, and I love the ways in which Portland is different from other places. However, doing all this thinking and research and writing about Portland over recent months has opened my eyes to something to which I had not given enough attention previously—namely, the way we tend to skip some of the fundamentals that might not be in sync with the Portlandia dream but that are essential for a city’s long-term thriving. These are things like a solid public education infrastructure, support for families, race equity, and—yes—conventional economic strength, which is necessary to finance the whole thing and to keep our population from becoming too much of a one-dimensional caricature.  

CP: What is often overlooked in discussions of Portland are the city’s racial challenges. How would you describe them?

In my Portland profile, I sometimes refer to Portland living the “green dream.” It’s also a white dream in that Portland is the least diverse major city in the United States. But for some, Portland is nothing close to a dream. Especially for people of color, it can be tough place. All of us liberals out here are for racial justice in principle. But for a whole complex set of reasons, we don’t always put our money where are mouths are. If you look at the metrics, whether it’s income or health outcomes or high school graduation rates or any number of other measures, you find big disparities. I’m hopeful, though, that we are in the early stages of an evolution whereby the city begins to live up to its progressive values in this area, too.

CP: Would you say Portland is a thriving city?

In many ways, yes. No place is utopia, and that’s certainly true of Portland. But a lot of what’s happening here is very good and is conducive to residents having an urban experience with less of the grind that you find in most big cities, and with more sheer pleasantness and cheerfulness (despite the gray skies and rain). It’s telling that so many smart, educated young people—people with lots of options—continue to endorse the place by moving here.




Click here to follow Tom on his website. Also, check out his most recent book The Evangelicals You Don’t Know

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Do Cities Tear Us Apart?—Part 3

The Coy Divisions of Post-Industrial Cities 

(Credit Creative Commons Zero)

(Credit: Creative Commons Zero)

One of the most critical measures of city well-being over the next century may be an unexpected one: friendship ties. For thinkers interested in the “social ecology” and sense of connectedness of urban areas, this measure may capture the real story of how cultural and economic forces are transforming our day-to-day interactions with those around us.

Why would city scholars care about whom we consider our friends? Surveys of friendship ties reveal the homogeneity or diversity of personal social networks: They can pinpoint how these networks become closed-off “bubbles” of sameness along class, race, or status lines. According to a diverse set of thinkers, closed-off bubbles are becoming the central story of social life in post-industrial societies. Thinkers like Robert Putnam, Bill Bishop, Claude Fischer, and Charles Murray have mapped a rising divide or “coming apart” between the social worlds of educated-class and working-class populations in the last fifty years. For urban contexts, following the work of William Julius Wilson and Robert Sampson, this divide is magnified in areas where concentrated disadvantage has locked in social and economic disconnectedness for multiple generations. Studies of social ties tell the same story: The number of Americans with “bridging” ties across education levels has decreased since the 1980s, even while ties bridging race lines have increased.

Why does this matter? Two reasons, which are deeply interconnected. First of all, upending the arguments of earlier city studies, the challenge of cities does not seem to be some lurking threat of anomie or isolationism. Urban contexts in late-capitalist society provide no shortage of subcultures and leisure activities bristling with social ties. The greatest challenge today follows a more Tocquevillian concern: an individualism that involves withdrawing into enclaves to “willingly abandon society at large to its own devices.” As a result of  technological and transportation developments of the last century, insular social worlds now coexist in concentrated areas, a change sociologist Douglas Massey labels the “unprecedented spatial intensification of both privilege and poverty.” While divides along ethnic, class, or neighborhood lines have always characterized cities, today’s enclaving is unique in how it reinforces itself through grocery stores, schools, churches, medical care, restaurants, and leisure activities. A recent Washington Post article labeled this the “skyboxification” of American life. In skyboxified America, social ties across social worlds—such as middle-class professionals knowing manual laborers or ex-cons knowing college graduates—become far rarer.

The second reason this matters may be obvious: Few thinkers see anything positive coming out of this trend. In fact, one finds a strong consensus among liberals, conservatives, communitarians, and libertarians that insular and homogenous social worlds present an obstacle to a just and flourishing society. Social enclaves bear consequences for every moral and political challenge of our time, from inequality, social justice, labor issues, human rights, education, and climate change. None of these challenges fails to be affected by our shrinking exposure to those around us who share in these issues’ outcomes.

So what might be done to reconnect insular social worlds? No magic bullet solutions have yet emerged. Nor can the problem be solved by clever social engineering or policy interventions. Social historians, however, can offer three evaluative criteria to evaluate change. First of all, efforts that fail to address multilayered dimensions of cultural, economic, and design-planning conditions will likely simply perpetuate rather than remedy skyboxification. For example, new urbanism has drawn criticism for the “latent suburbanism” lurking within much of its designed space. Many design efforts are rightly celebrated for producing more shared space and organic interactions, but designers rarely conceptualize how their engineered interactions alone can overcome economic and cultural divisions.

Second, efforts to reduce skyboxification will likely build from the contexts and settings that have historically bridged and bound otherwise separate social realms. This is where city leaders and others may need to take a deliberate lead, as few institutional leaders have responded to calls for change. Institutions of higher education—historically key places for exposing students to others of different backgrounds—have by and large ignored the growing calls to address their complicity in reproducing class divides. A better ally might be particular religious communities that pull together diverse members, such as the one highlighted by Carla Arnell in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article. While many religious groups (along with non-religious civic groups) passively absorb the racial or class demographics of their surroundings, there are well-established traditions and groups that proactively pursue linkages across these lines.

Finally, reconnecting social worlds will require a critical assessment of how bonds and interactions do or don’t overcome insularity. “Token” friendship diversity likely won’t work. In other words, what sort of interactions would allow a social ecology to regain the good lost to skyboxification?

Three forms of social interaction are unlikely to breach the skybox walls: economic transactional activities, paternalistic benevolence, and experiential benevolence. The first fall under what Karl Marx labeled the “dull compulsion of economic relations”: consuming goods in shared space—or in Zygmunt Bauman words “collective consumerism”—or workers sharing the same employer in a radically stratified workplace. Those types of interactions bring people into close proximity while leaving insular social worlds intact.

A second type of interaction is a paternalistic form of benevolence that implicitly perpetuates power divides. Writing on class relations in early twentieth-century New York, historian David Huyssen details the harm committed by affluent activists and altruists in their involvement in labor organizing and philanthropy.

Today, many millennials have tried another apprach to benevolence: a subjectively meaningful “voluntourism,” or temporary immersion into the world of the disadvantaged.  Like the other approaches, this one may provide some impetus for further action, but in itself it does not really challenge the forces behind skyboxification.

A more promising mode identified by Huyssen is “cooperative relationships” that recognize power structures and inequality among actors. In its more political form, this entails organizing diverse groups and actors around shared communal needs: raising a community’s “collective efficacy” to address its own challenges. Studies suggest collective efficacy, while a social good in itself, can also offset demographic and economic conditions that otherwise predict crime and social disorder. But cooperative relationships can also take a more interpersonal form. These range from more organic cross-group (“bridging”) friendships to more intentional forms of solidarity with marginalized populations. Cooperative relationships would also include CEOs engaged in the wellbeing of workers’ families, middle-class churches taking on the needs of an under-resourced public school, or friends stepping in as a “voluntary kin” in cases of family-structure disruption. Cooperative relationships can reconnect disparate social worlds, ensuring public good and meeting human needs that might otherwise be ignored.

Discussions of inequality and opportunity are likely to continue, and the future may hold significant cultural or economic shifts that we can’t predict. But as we grapple with these questions, the reality of insular social worlds embodies the very personal and experiential dimensions of life in post-industrial settings. The flourishing of cities depends on conceiving new ways to overcome these divides, both as an end in itself and also as a means of achieving a just and thriving society.

Andrew Lynn is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Virginia. His interests include sociology of religion, social change, and the cultural logic of individualism in American culture.

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