DUSP-PKG Fellowships: Allison Hannah Lee (G), Part II

Allison Hannah Lee is a Master in City Planning candidate at MIT, focused on design and development. During summer 2021 she is partnering with the Community Foundation of North Central Massachusetts and local organization Growing Places to plan and implement a regional food hub that provides a better quality of life, of health, and of jobs in north central MA.

To read Part I of Allison’s PKG-DUSP Fellowship experience, click here.

A hot and muggy day at the Westminster Farmers Market means lower customer turnout, shorter stays, and wilting greens. But not all are upset by the heat; in fact, one vendor in particular welcomes it. The line in front of Mrs. Moriconi’s ice cream stays consistently occupied by children and adults alike, buying either $6 half-pints or $10 pints of homemade ice cream. To the repeat customers, Mrs. Moriconi presents her newest flavors: Elderflower, Passion Fruit Colada, Tiramisu. To the new customers, she greets them with her key selling points: handmade, local, real ingredients.

Most customers appreciate those traits, but don’t fully understand the weight they carry. They may not realize that Mrs. Moriconi was trained in food science and safety at Penn State University as well as the French Culinary Institute in NYC. That she is particular about selecting only high-quality Jersey cows to produce the milk for her ice cream. That she reduces fresh peaches for a particular peach taste instead of using pre-made flavoring. But these are still selling traits – incentives that create additional value in the consumer’s eyes for a product costing more than your average supermarket ice cream. They are highlighted in conversation, as seen in the summer 2021 issue of edibleWorcester, where Mrs. Moriconi was featured on the front page.

Above image: Summer 2021 issue of Edible Worcester, featuring Mrs. Moriconi’s Ice Cream on the cover page.

Yet there’s another set of unseen traits that don’t often go mentioned in conversation with small business producers. These are the operations and logistics – the packing, the storage, the loading, the driving, the temperature monitoring, the maintenance, the cleaning – which, for a small business owner, can take up the majority of their time without carrying much value-added weight. These unsexy realities of small business ownership do not entice consumers to spend additional money on the product. However, for small producers, often operating solo or in a very small team, there is little help or streamlining. One producer explained that these unseen tasks occupy over 75% of her time, leaving only a fraction remaining to devote to her actual food-entrepreneurship craft.

Why is there such a significant unseen workload for small businesses? The more obvious answer is economy of scale. Input costs can be reduced when more units are produced: a small jam maker will never be able to outprice Smucker’s. The less obvious answer is infrastructure, and this plays out in a large way for rural settings.

Consider a rural environment, with towns spread across large distances connected by singular highways or main routes. An emerging entrepreneur wishes to start a pickle business, incorporating locally-grown products. Despite having the idea, the pickling know-how, and the motivation, there are a handful of considerations this entrepreneur must navigate in the course of their venture. Start-up capital is hard to come by; in fact, venture capital is so heavily skewed towards metro areas like Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles that less than 1% of it even goes to rural startups.[1] Traditional lines of credit are similarly difficult to access, as many banks view food businesses as too risky. Sometimes local economic development bureaus offer small business loan programs for exactly this reason.

Besides capital, there’s equipment and space. For some small food processors, Massachusetts cottage food laws allow for production in one’s home kitchen which significantly eases the processing cost and requirements. Canned pickling products, however, fall within potentially-hazardous foods requiring time temperature control and thus are prohibited from home kitchen processing, along with items like meat, dairy, cut vegetables, and sauces. Our pickle entrepreneur must look for an outside approved facility for their processing.

In north central MA, there are no comprehensive commercial kitchens. A handful of industrial kitchens, often located in churches and other community spaces, exist scattered throughout the region, but they are not purpose-built for emerging entrepreneurs. They offer limited, if any, refrigeration, storage, packing areas, and programmatic expertise or permitting support. A lucky entrepreneur might connect with a local organization such as Growing Places to secure a limited-use kitchen space for baked goods and other non-potentially hazardous products. For most entrepreneurs, like our pickle producer, a more realistic operating plan involves a series of different locations to purchase, clean, process, package, store, distribute, and sell the product. It becomes an intricate maze of scheduling and coordination.

With small food businesses, most of us see their value in three main components: their creativity in designing a new product, their skill in creating that product, and their persona or narrative in branding that product. We don’t see, and therefore don’t value, the other portions of the labor that goes into the product. While this is an expected business reality in all settings, it is especially weighty in rural areas that face significant infrastructural gaps. The chance for comprehensive maker-spaces is lower. The drive time between different processing locations is longer. The shared resources for aggregation and distribution are limited. The retail opportunities are fewer and thus more precious. The margins are slimmer overall.

Above image: Charlie’s Redhouse Farm in Winchendon, MA has an on-site farm stand selling produce and eggs.

The visioning of a new food system in north central MA is complex in that it requires addressing a multitude of structural challenges simultaneously. Low wages, inadequate infrastructure, geographic distances, climate seasonality, narrow retail opportunities, declining downtowns, external competition, consumer mentality and purchasing options – all of these play a role in a fractured food system.

When we are proposing interventions for a better food economy, we are thinking of the pickle entrepreneur as much as we are thinking about the farmers and the consumers. If we could improve certain infrastructure or aggregate certain logistic operations, could we shift some of the entrepreneur’s time back to their true value-add, i.e. their creativity, their skill, and their brand? Could a third-party organization function to provide support in the unseen areas, which currently are occupying far too much time for the entrepreneur? If so, how do we construct this master vision and what do we prioritize to tackle first?

These are the types of questions we are grappling with now, as our stakeholder group moves into the visioning process for the north central MA food system. Beyond interviews and lived experiences of the team, we are planning for community charettes to take place in early November so that we can gather feedback and ideas, as well as garner excitement around this large-scale initiative. With such a complicated and intricate project, involving many sectors, it is vital to learn from all relevant sides to more fully inform our next steps moving forward.

Allison Hannah Lee is DUSP-PKG Fellow jointly supported by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the PKG Center. Interested in applying to this type of fellowship? Click here to learn more!

[1] Jacob, Larry. (2018) “8 Trends that prevent entrepreneurs from accessing capital”. Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. https://www.kauffman.org/currents/3-trends-that-prevent-entrepreneurs-from-accessing-capital/

Tags: Agriculture & Food, DUSP, DUSP Fellowships 2021, Food Insecurity, Health, PKG Fellowships

« All Posts