Putting your money where your meal is

New philanthropic fund aims to invest in local food system

Wes Jackson, founder and president of the Land Institute.

Many people in Boulder already invest in the development of the local food economy by participating in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, frequenting the Farmers’ Market and shopping at grocers that carry goods, produce, meat and dairy that are produced locally. A nonprofit fund called Soil Trust, which will be officially launched at Slow Money’s upcoming National Gathering in Boulder on April 29 and 30, aims to enable local citizens to up the food sustainability ante and put their money where their meal is — or, rather, where it comes from.

The 2009 publication of Woody Tasch’s book, Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered, sparked conversations all over the country about money moving too fast, how to reconnect people and places to finance and ways to begin repairing a fragile economy — with food production serving as the nexus. Tasch then created the Boulder-based Slow Money organization, a national network of investors, donors and farmers who coordinate to invest in local food, incubate new sustainably minded businesses and rebuild localized food economies.

Until recently, the Slow Money philanthropic fund was mainly focused on managing fairly sizable investments. Through Slow Money national gatherings, regional events and local activities, more than $24 million has been invested in 190 small food enterprises around the United States since 2010.

The launch of Slow Money’s Soil Trust fund is designed to allow any individual to make a small, tax-deductible donation — as little as $25 — and track their money online as it’s invested in small food enterprises right alongside larger investments.

“Only a small number of people have the ability to write big checks and invest, but a lot more people who care about food systems can make smaller donations and participate,” says Tasch, Slow Money’s founder and chairman. “By using the power of the Internet, our goal is to reach the people who can’t be in the room but want to be involved in the activity.”

Soil Trust is similar to other crowd-funding platforms but will work to combine the knowledge and experience of investors and financial activists and will reinvest returns to multiply each investment to work for multiple new businesses, according to its website.

The fund lists goals of sustainably rebuilding soil and local food systems and improving the economic and social infrastructures of local communities, and says that as a donation-based nonprofit the fund will have greater ability to focus on social and environmental outcomes over financial returns, according to Slow Money’s website.

The results are geared to be qualitative and sustainable rather than quantitative.

Essentially, the idea behind the Soil Trust is to give everyday citizens an opportunity to participate in building sustainable local food economies by supporting innovative and socially and environmentally conscious entrepreneurs, Tasch says.

LoCo Food Distribution, which handles the connections and deliveries between local farmers and food processors and many of the restaurants, grocers and schools along the Front Range, received a Slow Money capital loan for $12,000 in October 2012.

The business enables vendors, who grow and produce local foods, to focus on building their businesses and gives the community easier access to locally grown and produced food, says Elizabeth Mozer, LoCo’s owner.

The capital loan she received with a payback rate of 3 percent enabled her business to approach a break-even point after two years, Mozer says.

The idea of investing in community food enterprises is resurfacing after years of national and global grocery chains and large-scale farms pushing out small businesses. A recent study by the Wallace Center at Winrock International and the Businesses Alliance for Local Living Communities, which are collaborating on a community food enterprise project, claims that, in today’s economy, community food enterprises may have some advantages over larger-scale businesses. Those advantages may include a deeper awareness of local tastes and markets, the ability to obtain consumer feedback quickly and tweak their business models accordingly, the delivery of goods faster, and the opportunity to rely on no-cost, word-of-mouth advertising. Research associated with the project, funded by the W.K Kellogg Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, concluded that community food enterprises are becoming increasingly competitive and will continue to be competitive if their managers harness advantages such as the ones listed above and share best practices among themselves.

Another study published in 2011 by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that investments in local and regional enterprises led to increases in labor and capital income in households. It also concluded that the economic impacts of local food systems could be greater than those of conventional markets. For example, purchasing directly from a farmer or another local food processor or company allows for most, if not all, of the resulting revenue to be retained locally.

“In Boulder, where natural and organic food is one of the most important industries, it’s encouraging to see some investment activity emerging to support its growth,” says Clif Harald, Boulder Economic Council’s executive director. “From a Boulder economic vitality and sustainability point of view,

Slow Money’s value system is right on target. … I’m not saying fast money is necessarily a bad thing — many have prospered using that model — but there is a longer-term, more sustainable value that Slow Money represents that is important to economic growth in Boulder.”

In addition to the entrepreneur showcase and the official launch of Soil Trust, National Gathering participants will have the opportunity to hear from and engage with successful food entrepreneurs and “thought leaders” in agriculture, investing and philanthropy.

“This will give people a live sampling of exactly the kinds of enterprises that the Soil Trust through Slow Money will invest in,” Tasch says. “It should be really exciting for people.”

Conference topics include issues such as healthy food sheds, food justice, food finance, GMOs and seed diversity. Plus, locals can participate in Colorado regional organizing sessions.

Respond: [email protected] The Slow Money National Gathering takes place in Boulder April 29-30. Additional information can be found at www.slowmoney.org.


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