Food + Enterprise: bringing together farmers and financiers to strengthen local, sustainable food industry

In just two days we will be kicking off Food + Enterprise, a first-of-its-kind conference at Industry City in Brooklyn dedicated to financing a better local food system by connecting impact investors, foundations, and other patient capital with food entrepreneurs, offering technical assistance and consulting services with practitioners in a vast array of professional expertise. It's a new initiative led by Slow Money NYC, Food Book Fair, National Young Farmers Coalition, Community Food Funders and NRDC as part of the Northeast Foodshed Finance Alliance that focuses on promoting understanding and collaboration amongst multiple stakeholders who aim to spur sustainable local food systems.

It's an exciting, unprecedented time for regional, more sustainable food. The appetite for local, healthy and sustainable food is exploding. Between 2006 and 2014 the number of farmer's markets across the U.S. has increased by 180%, the number of food hubs has increased by almost 300%, and the number of school districts with farm to school programs has jumped 430%.

Regional food is a tremendous growing opportunity to support local economy, preserve farm land, and increase healthy food access. In fact, the "real food" food movement is starting to make a dent in the big processed industrial food industry. Just look at recent plummeting earnings for McDonalds, Campbell Soup, Kraft Foods, Kellogg Co. and other processed food giants. Campbell Soup's CEO recently acknowledged that there is a "mounting distrust of so-called Big Food." People want to know where their food comes from and how it's grown. Local and sustainable can deliver that.

Still many barriers persist for small businesses and farmers trying to make an impact. Lack of efficient distribution options, processing capacity and aggregation can make it hard for local farms to get their food into the hands of local consumers, and can create a higher cost of doing business.

With an amazing line up of speakers and events at Food + Enterprise, leading farmers, entrepreneurs and investors will share how they are working together to overcome these barriers and serve up a healthier food future. Each day of the three day event will bring unique and valuable content. There are too many great speakers to name them all but here's a sampling. (You can see the full line up here.)

The event will be kicked off on Friday with inspiration from Judy Wicks, a pioneer of the local food movement and environmental stewardship, founder of the White Dog Café in Philadelphia, author of Good Morning, Beautiful Business and co-founder of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). Judy was named one of America's 25 most fascinating entrepreneurs by, Inc. magazine in 2004, "because she's put in place more progressive business practices per square foot than any other entrepreneur."

Also on Friday, we will take a deep dive into the "anatomy of a deal" with Randy Lewis, one of the founders of Catskill Brewery. This session will highlight how this deal was put together and the key factors that have made it a success as a potential model for others.

Saturday will be a full day of fascinating panels kicked off by Woody Tasch, founder of Slow Money, a national network that supports investment in small food enterprises. Woody is a pioneer of the concepts of patient capital, mission-related investing, and community development venture capital. In just four years since the national network started, Slow Money networks and investment clubs around the country have led to more than $40 million being invested in almost 400 small food enterprises.

Throughout the day there will be an exhilarating (and perhaps exhausting) array of panels covering everything from to how to help build a more just food system, to nailing key performance indicators (KPI) for local financial stakeholders. We'll hear from Will Robb, Global Food Procurement Manager at Etsy on strategies to balance social and environmental returns with profitability and financing needs/expectations. Shen Tong, serial entrepreneur, angel investor and activist and most recently founder of Food-X business accelerator, will illuminate how entrepreneurs and funders can work together through the due diligence process to seal the deal. Check out Shen's fascinating story here.

On Sunday the event will close with a pitch competition where entrepreneurs pitch their growth-stage businesses in front of a panel of celebrity thought-leader judges. Dubbed "Shark Tank" for foodies, this pitch competition has served as a launch pad for a hydroponic farm, produce distributor and more. Last year's winner, Mark Jaffe recently profiled in the New York Times, will be on hand as will a number of other prior year participants.

The best thing about this event is that this is just the beginning. The goal of Food + Enterprise and its collaborators at the Northeast Foodshed Finance Alliance is to build ongoing networks and relationships that will strengthen and support sustainable production in the New York region and greater access to sustainably grown food in our cities.

By supporting productive connections between sources of capital and sustainable food producers at a regional level, NEFFA aims to create and implement sustainable food solutions as models for other regional food systems across the country. NRDC shares that vision, as our team is working to help communities transform regional food systems to deliver healthy, local food that can compete and win against the older, industrialized agriculture system that is depleting our water, polluting the air and causing an alarming increase in diabetes, cancer and other diseases.

So there will be much more to come on all fronts. But for now, I'm excited to eat, drink and connect with a group of amazingly thoughtful, dedicated and inspiring leaders who are each helping to move us toward a healthier food future where more sustainable, real food is available and accessible for all.

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