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Social Entrepreneurship: Non-Profits Pursue Innovative Solutions to Improve Food Security

Whether it’s a growing population, an urban or rural population or a low-income population, non-profits are pursuing innovative solutions to the daunting challenge of food security.  “Micro-businesses” – or “social enterprises” – is one avenue that non-profits are tapping. This topic was recently discussed at a seminar entitled “Local Food Systems, Food Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship,” hosted by the Rutgers Food Innovation Center that was moderated by Executive Director Lou Cooperhouse.

Jim Zullo, Executive Director of Elijah’s Promise, a New Jersey-based community kitchen established in 1989, framed out the challenges facing food kitchens. According to Zullo, approximately 50 percent of New Brunswick, where their kitchen is based, struggles with food security, and approximately 30 percent are under the poverty line. The magnitude of this challenge incentivized Elijah’s Promise to embark on social entrepreneurship. Their initial foray was to launch a catering service that required little capital investment over the existing soup kitchen facility they had, yet now generates over $300k in revenue. 

 “Job training and generating their own revenue, I think it’s important for non-profits to show their supporters and constituents that we are doing everything we can to be more self-reliant,” explained Zullo. 

Following the catering service, Elijah’s Promise then launched the “Better World Café,” where the public could purchase prepared food and make contributions directly. The “Better World Market” followed, which was a retail space selling food products. Soon after, their Culinary School emerged, where locals received six months of training with the goal of gaining employment with their new skills.

When the community becomes engaged in these social enterprises, more benefits are derived outside of the core funding raising. In the example of the “Better World Café,” locals volunteered to run the café that served nutritional food to a wider range of the community, it provided jobs to those graduating from the culinary school, it enabled individuals without funds to barter their time in exchange for meals, and it gave patrons an additional way to donate directly to the not for profit. 

The social enterprises that St. Louis University inaugurated is another example of how a not-for-profit pursues innovative solutions to food security issues of the local community. Steve Jenkins, PhD and former Assistant Professor and Program Director at the Food Innovation and Entrepreneurship at St. Louis University, shared how an initial grant-based program administered by the university was sustained by creatively engaging the local community. 

Jenkins outlines his program’s success in a speech entitled “Re-invigorating the University Mission through Social Entrepreneurship.” It detailed his innovative approach to social enterprises in the food security sector and how to continue to make an impact in a sustainable way.

The goal that anchored his program was how to source food more locally, a pursuit where he and his students had found success in the past. One of his students, in an attempt make international dishes using local ingredients, started MOFU, a Missouri-based tofu company. Since Asian ingredients are hard to substitute, he developed his own rice noodles and tofu to make pad thai, and it eventually blossomed into a business.

Jenkins noted that the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 dramatically changed the way universities could generate profits, since it shifted intellectual property rights from the government to the institution where the work was done. This brought an entirely new paradigm, and all of a sudden, universities had a new found revenue generator to profit from.

Over time, support structures developed to harness intellectual property to generate revenue. At the same time, entrepreneurial culture was changing at universities; entrepreneurship was now something students could actually accomplish in school instead of simply learning about it.

Then, student pitch competitions and angel investors became motivators for students to pursue entrepreneurship in school. However, along with that came an inevitable consequence, according to Jenkins: some students began shifting their goals away from simply making money and toward trying to change the world around them. They used the same support structures to make nonprofits, and social enterprises started gaining steam.

Jenkins and his students approached social entrepreneurship with one central question: “How can we change the food system within the region of St. Louis?”

After careful consideration, they decided to focus on children for two reasons. First, impacting the next generation could change diets and behaviors for years to come. And secondly, schools are a huge market, and the sheer economic power of the school system made it very attractive as a place where they could make a difference.

Their first project was in the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District in the inner suburbs of St. Louis, which included three schools and 4,000 kids. They set their goal of increasing school lunches to being 20 percent local. Operating out of an old kitchen hospital built in 1956, they used grant money to employ students to peel apples. The work was tedious, but by the end, they reached their goal.

From there, they set their sights a bit higher, and fulfilled a contract for the entire St. Louis public school district, processing 15,000 pounds of apple sauce, 9,000 pounds of sweet potato puree and 8,000 pounds of marinara. All that food, however, only delivered a single meal for the district. Jenkins then realized they could help the problem, but they weren’t the solution.

From there, they specialized. They worked with Ferguson FACS students, teaching them how to run their own businesses, and then partnered with Aramark to sell the food they processed.

They also diversified their operation, working with farmers to buy leftover vegetables at friendly prices and getting that local food into the school system. As they expanded, they also saw additional grant funding from places like the Missouri Department of Agriculture to purchase additional equipment and process food at a quicker pace.

Jenkins makes an obvious conclusion about their social entrepreneurship.  As their social enterprises expand, Jenkins’ job is to find a way to make them sustainable. One strategy he employs is linking the academic side with the social side. For example, if his students need a particular skill in order to sustain an operation, he’ll teach a class on it. This helps both sides grow and benefits everyone.

In addition, diversifying operations is key. They run a shared-use kitchen for the community, purchase local products, process, and sell them to local school districts, and also have a contract with Aramark. Through integrating all these different aspects, the program becomes self-sustaining.

“Given the finances of higher education, having an economically sustainable enterprise is attractive because at some point, you’re not going to get the money you want,” said Jenkins. “At the end of the day, if the university doesn’t have to write me a check to keep doing what I’m doing, they’ll let me keep going.”

Jenkins also points out the distinct advantage to running this social enterprise through the university system. He said that while the federal government has the money to fund it, they have no knowledge of the subject. But students, on the other hand, can find novel solutions with no risk; even if a solution doesn’t work, it’s still a learning experience, so the university becomes a safe place to develop new work.

Both Jim Zullo at Elijah’s Promise and Steve Jenkins at St. Louis University saw food innovation within a social enterprise as an additional way to meet the food needs of their local communities. While they were 1500 miles apart they had some common realizations.  Funding, training, local community engagement, as well as creativity and adaptability, were key factors influencing a program’s success and whether or not their efforts were sustainable to achieve an enduring impact on their community’s food security.

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