Food: A Driving Force in Creating Equitable Economic Opportunities

The first thought that probably comes to mind for many people is that food serves as a source of nourishment. In recent years, food has become more than just nourishment, commodified into trendy food items shared on social media, such as cronuts, unicorn Frappucinos, and rolled ice cream. At ESI, we like our fair share of fancy donuts (and other trendy foods); however, we view food beyond this notion.

As demonstrated in ESI’s 2014 Economic Analysis of Detroit’s Food System, food can be a powerful economic development driver that impacts several industries. If you look at Detroit’s economy, food is poised to be the next largest growth sector for the city. These industries in the food economy include: warehousing, manufacturing, kitchen incubators, specialty food businesses, and restaurants. Specifically, there has been a rise in food entrepreneurs, food-related/culinary careers, and local food businesses.

On the consumer side, there has been demand for these unique and local restaurants, where according to The State of the City Experience, a report published by Sasaki, 82 percent of those surveyed appreciated their city’s unique culinary offerings, prompting them to venture out to different parts of the city. From the food entrepreneur to the consumer, food serves as a significant social, cultural, and economic driver for cities.

Upon closer examination of this notion that food is an economic driver, how do we use food as a form of equitable access to employment opportunities? While kitchen incubators represent one way to support emerging or established food entrepreneurs, how can we also connect these opportunities for people who are not entrepreneurs? Workforce development programs train the future workforce and provide the skills and hands-on experience needed to gain employment. These programs often target low-income and immigrant communities. However, not all of these programs look the same across the country.

In this post, we look at three workforce development programs across different cities, and how they are training the next cohorts of skilled food workers. These three programs are housed under different organizations: 1) Philadelphia Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC), a non-profit workforce development organization in Philadelphia, 2) Hot Bread Kitchen, a kitchen incubator that has a skills training program in New York City, and 3) With Love Restaurant, a teaching restaurant in Syracuse.

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Philadelphia OIC, located in North Philadelphia, is a local non-profit workforce development organization, established in 1964 during the early history of when workforce development programs were beginning to be established across the country. Its founder, Reverend Leon Sullivan, believed that jobs were the key “to economic development and true empowerment” as a response to the high unemployment rate in Philadelphia’s African American community.

One of Philadelphia OIC’s programs, Opportunities Inn, is a culinary arts training track that connects students with employment to Philadelphia’s hotels and restaurants upon completion of the program. Opportunities Inn is a great example of how the food industry can provide accessible economic opportunities for low-income communities. As Philadelphia’s hospitality and restaurant industries continue to grow, having a workforce development program will remain an important way to connect unemployed, underemployed and low-income communities to gainful employment.

Hot Bread Kitchen
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Hot Bread Kitchen, established in 2007, is located in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York City. It is a social enterprise that includes a food business specializing in gourmet bread products, a kitchen incubator called HBK Incubates, and a culinary paid training program, Bakers in Training, where participants train at the kitchen incubator. The Bakers in Training program is specifically targeted to foreign-born and economically disadvantaged women, where participants receive training in bread making by working for Hot Bread Kitchen, and learn other key skills including ESL (English as a Second Language) courses, and bakery math and science.

Hot Bread Kitchen is part of the $127 billion U.S. Specialty Food Industry. As consumers continue to demand locally sourced and unique food products, this industry will continue to grow, resulting in a growing number of specialty food businesses, and a need for these particularly skilled workers. The Bakers in Training program serves as a bridge to provide skilled workers to this growing industry, while connecting New York City’s community of immigrant women to living wage jobs.

With Love Restaurant
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With Love Restaurant is a teaching restaurant operated by Onondaga County Community College (OCC), located in Syracuse, New York. Launched in late 2016, this teaching restaurant incubates an immigrant entrepreneur every six months. The restaurant serves as a testing ground for the entrepreneur to test their menu and restaurant skills while receiving support and technical assistance. The operations of the restaurant consist of students from OCC’s Food Service Management Program, where students receive the opportunity to develop their culinary skills, and learn the operations and management of a restaurant.

The creation of the With Love Restaurant was built from a desire to help Syracuse’s refugee community transform their culinary skills into a business, and to create a workforce development program that uses the restaurant as a hands-on training experience to eventually connect OCC students to living wage jobs. This program is helping meet the growing demand for food-related jobs in local restaurants, where there is a reported demand for line cooks in local restaurants.  The workforce development program at the With Love Restaurant provides entrepreneurs and students an accessible way to obtain gainful employment in the food industry. As the City of Syracuse seeks to generate new economic opportunities for its underserved and underemployed populations, the use of workforce development programs is critical in connecting employment opportunities to these populations.

These examples, along with the many other food-related workforce development programs across the country, demonstrate the importance of being intentional about creating access to employment training opportunities in growing sectors of local economies. These programs results in greater economic security for those in the programs. A skilled workforce in food-related industries provides employment opportunities and drive economic development. Food and the ways in which it is manifested into economic development, such as restaurants and food businesses, will remain an important driving force in shaping a city’s workforce. The creation of workforce development programs that recognize industry trends will persist as a form of generating equitable economic opportunities for people as these food-related industries grow.


Processed with VSCOcam with c1 presetLily Ho is a Research Analyst at Econsult Solutions, Inc. She brings to ESI a background in data visualization, cartographic design, and spatial analysis. Prior to ESI, she worked as a Project Associate at American Communities Trust (ACT) and managed its Baltimore Food Business Microloan Fund.

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