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Making It Local: The New Food Economy

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By Elise Vider

Outside St. Michael's Church, midway though a July heat wave, Kensington baked.

Inside the church kitchen, the dew point was high and the garlic index was through the roof.

David Siller and Kevin Heaney were in constant motion, chopping mountains of green cabbage, garlic, leeks, carrots and ginger, under pressure to make 200 pounds of Kensington Garli-Kraut in the four hours they had rented the shared kitchen.

The pair pounded the chopped, raw ingredients into large tubs - a bit like churning butter - to encourage the natural fermentation process. Every day or two for the next few weeks, one of them would need to press the tubs before the finished product could be placed in one-pound jars and sold at the growing number of retailers selling Cobblestone Kraut and other artisan foods made in Philadelphia.
Sauerkraut made by hand in Kensington is just one foodstuff from the emerging world of artisanal, locavore food. Combined, they are changing the food culture in
Philadelphia and creating a small, new economic sector with potential for growth.
Once,
Philadelphia was known as a place where companies made big things: locomotives and ships and steel. Now, comes the emergence of food entrepreneurs making small, delicious things: Betty's Tasty Buttons confectionary, John & Kira's Chocolates, Renaissance Sausage, Urban Apiaries honey and Cobblestone Kraut, to name a few.

And, every month. it seems there are more. Even with a recession, newcomers continue to enter the field.

The emergence of this economic micro-sector is being driven by a number of factors, creating "a perfect storm for Philadelphia food pioneers," according to Alethia Calbeck, director of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.'s Philly Homegrown culinary tourism project, which markets the region to foodies. New Kraut.jpg

One factor is that there are more opportunities than ever to sell artisan food goods at wholesale and retail. In addition to the explosion of the city's restaurant scene  -- especially the BYO phenomenon, which encourages young, innovative chefs to open restaurants -- there has been a proliferation of small, specialty grocers that stock local products, including the Fair Food Farmstand at the Reading Terminal Market, Pumpkin Market on South Street, Milk and Honey Market in West Philadelphia, Green Aisle Grocery in South Philly, Almanac in Northern Liberties and the venerable Weavers Way Co-op in Mt. Airy, West Oak Lane and Chestnut Hill. Add to that list a new generation of food trucks serving sophisticated fare and the dozens of farmer's markets and farmstands, with more setting up shop all the time.

There are also more sources for high-quality, local ingredients, many produced organically or using sustainable agricultural techniques. The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) reported last year that the 100-mile "foodshed" surrounding Philadelphia is home to many more, but smaller, farms. In 2007, the foodshed had 45,673 farms, an increase of 5.6% since 2002 and an increase of 12% since 1987, DVRPC reported.

During the same time period, the average size of the foodshed's farms decreased from 137 acres in 1987 to 114 acres in 2007.

The planning agency cited several factors for the decrease in the size of farms: some are getting smaller through subdivision by sale, inheritance or retirement. But, it also suggests that there are more 'lifestyle' or hobby farms in the foodshed,

(DVRPC also reported that there were 17 farms within Philadelphia city limits, according to the USDA's 2007 Census of Agriculture.)

The market for locally grown and made food has also changed because of a seismic shift in the way many consumers think about food and spend their food dollars, a turning away from the highly-processed foods that are the principal product of the nation's giant food-industrial complex.

If there is one word that personifies this new thinking it is "locavore." The 2007 Oxford Word of the Year has only gained currency in the years since. (Oxford's definition: "a person whose diet consists only or principally of locally grown or produced food.")

But locavore is  also a consumer movement, a reaction to the cost and resources involved in shipping food long distances, worries prompted by the outbreaks of food-borne illnesses in recent years and a growing realization that fresh, local, in-season food just tastes better.

Fair Food is a 10-year-old nonprofit whose mission is to promote a humane and sustainable agriculture system in the region by creating and supporting markets for local farmers. Its Reading Terminal Market stand sells fresh, local produce, meat, poultry, dairy, cheeses and eggs. For committed locavores, it's easy to connect the dots between supporting local agriculture by buying Lancaster County apples or late-season corn from South Jersey. (Full disclosure: I volunteer at the stand and have helped with its development program.)

Locally produced "value added" food goods have a potential ripple effect on the local food economy, by creating new products, mostly made with local ingredients. (Value added is an industry term for a product derived from an agricultural commodity that is processed in a way to enhance its value or expand its potential customer base. Examples are jams and preserves, pickles and yogurt.)

Ann Karlen, Fair Food's executive director, sees a direct link between the growing interest in artisanal foods, the commitment to local and the strengthening DIY (Do It Yourself) movement. For the loyal customers at the Farmstand, she says, it's about taste and freshness, nutrition, supporting their community and overall quality of life.

For the small-scale food producers, there is an array of motives -- everything from promoting personal health, to social and political agendas, to finding a livelihood during a time of economic uncertainty With jobs scarce, the recession, it seems, has unleashed an entrepreneurial spirit among young foodies, encouraging them to strike out on their own with small, low-overhead operations.

Garcia.jpgFor Siller and his business partner Ryan Kuck, producing sauerkraut is an extension of their interest in promoting the health benefits of live-culture, naturally fermented foods. Business is steady and they expect to produce 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of Kensington Garli-Kraut and South Philly Jungle Kraut this year for a marginal profit. Still, like many of their fellow entrepreneurs, this is a sideline business.

A purely social agenda is what drives a different sort of Philadelphia food entrepreneur. On weekends Alfonso Rocha, Rubén Chico and others operate a stand at the Italian Market to sell pinole, a finely ground blue cornmeal, and products including cheesecake and milk shakes made with pinole.

Project Potehtli Pinole is a nonprofit venture with the mission of supporting traditional agriculture in Ozolco, a small Mexican town from which they and many others have immigrated to Philadelphia. The organizers speak passionately of the risks that imported transgenic corn is posing to indigenous Mexican corn and traditional cultivation methods going back thousands of years.

"When you don't have corn, you don't have family. When you don't have family, you don't have a village. When you don't have a village, you don't have a country and you don't have history," says Chico.

Sales have been brisk since they imported their first shipment of 1,000 pounds of pinole in April, but "the main objective is not to sell cornmeal," says Rocha.

Good thing, because it's a long and uncertain road to profitability for these small food producers. Stephen Horton counsels prospective food entrepreneurs at West Philadelphia's Enterprise Center and is himself, with his wife, running Fifth of a Farm Creations, making small-batch jams and jellies. "I tell them, please try to have some other income stream while you're launching this."

The question arises, too, whether Philadelphia, with its poverty, hunger and food equity issues, can provide a sufficient market for artisan food that is generally quite expensive. Anecdotally, at least, it appears the answer is yes. Even six years ago, says Karlen, it wasn't feasible to get people to pay, say, $10 for a jar of locally made jam. Now, it's just as expensive to produce the jam, but there is a market for it.

Echoing Michael Pollan and other thinkers on the subject, Karlen points out that processed food in the United States is artificially cheap, while making us sick and fat.

DVRPC cites data showing that the U.S. is second only to the Netherlands in how little it spends on food, relative to other expenses.

Artisan food made in Philadelphia is a niche market, a tiny fraction of the billions spent annually on food in the region. But there appears to be a small, growing and passionate customer base choosing food quality over quantity and willing to pay more for it.

GPTMC's Calbeck attributes it to shifting values.

"Philadelphia supports these small [producers] and grocers in a way that might seem incomprehensible because they do [charge] a little more. But it's a value system that supports that. And now it's spreading to those who choose to spend their dollars that way."

Once, Kensington's Cramp Shipyards launched battleships, the Kensington Iron and Steel Works churned out propellers. The neighborhood's textile mills were said to weave more carpets than the whole of Great Britain and Ireland. Now, in the kitchen of a Lutheran church where those factory and shipyard workers once worshipped, a new industry is emerging, one jar of sauerkraut at a time.

 

Tomorrow: How local food makers are trying to overcome the city's many barriers to opening their own operations.

 

 

 

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