Jim Slama, a pioneer of the Good Food Movement in the Chicago area, is founder and president of FamilyFarmed, a non-profit organization committed to supporting locally grown and responsibly produced food. FamilyFarmed has evolved to include the beloved three-day Good Food Festival and Conference in Chicago, which provides information on financing, food policy, school food, producer issues, and food trade issues—plus all the fun of a public Festival celebrating the Good Food Movement itself. Jim has spoken nationally and internationally about the local and organic food, created the Good Food Business Accelerator, and is co-editor of Wholesale Success and Direct Market Success, manuals that have provided training and education to over 12,000 farmers in 42 states.
Jim remembers the food landscape in Chicago in the ’90s and early 2000s as rather bleak. “Back then it was nearly an organic food desert,” he says. Even access to non-organic fresh fruits and vegetables could be limited. But things slowly started shifting as grocers like Whole Foods came to the area, and continued to change when Jim created FamilyFarmed in 2004. The Festival and Conference that’s come out of FamilyFarmed has made a huge impact on the local and organic food scene in and around Chicago. “It’s been good for farmers building relationships, but also the distributors that are working with local products, they’re building relationships both with producers who are looking to sell the food but also restaurants or supermarkets or others who are seeking products,” says Jim.
So what’s next on the agenda? “I think that part of what our movement needs to do is ensure that farmers have a place at the table when it comes to pricing and how the relationships evolve. I think that’s something we need to stay vigilant around,” shares Jim.
Want more about financing the Good Food Movement? Listen to our Rootstock Radio conversation with Woody Tasch of Slow Money.
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Jim Slama
Air Date: July 3, 2017
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Chicago’s very own Good Food Movement pioneer and leader, Jim Slama. And it’s really fun to be talking with Jim. I’ve known him for many years, but he is the creator and president of FamilyFarmed, and that has also evolved into a beloved three-day Good Food Festival and Conference in Chicago. Welcome, Jim.
JIM SLAMA: Excited to be here, thank you, Theresa.
TM: So lovely to be talking about this movement in Chicago because 15 and 20 years ago, when this was sort of incubating in your brain, I bet, I remember reading that Chicago had one of the lowest indexes for good food and organic. I remember trying to place some organic products in Chicago—and this was just 15, 20 years ago—and it was very, very difficult. Do you remember those days?
JS: Those were rough times for people who, like me, were really into organic food. And I do remember those days, I think that fortunately there were a few little health food stores and some other places back then that were selling good food. And then when Whole Foods came to town, things started to shift pretty quickly, because they added—I think they now have 30 stores.
TM: In Chicago?
JS: Well, the Chicago region.
JS: Fifty across—almost 54 I think, now, across the Midwest. So they haven’t really changed the dynamics a lot, and they were taking market share away from the Jewels and Dominick’s while they were still around and some of the other mainstream grocers. And then they all started following suit with organics and more natural products and local. And so things have certainly shifted dramatically, I’d say, in those 15 years. But yeah, back then it was nearly an organic food desert.
TM: What year was that then? That was like 15 years ago. That must’ve been just the turn of the century, or just the end of the twentieth century. At that time, weren’t you the editor of Conscious Choice magazine?
JS: Yeah, I owned Conscious Choice magazine, which I sold in 2002. I actually started the nonprofit in 1996 after we did a campaign to educate people in Chicago that there was an incinerator on the west side that was putting out 150,000 pounds of lead into the air.
JS: And I was so appalled that the city was poisoning its own children. It was in a very dense, urban neighborhood, a lot of poor people, a lot of lead poisoning, very high rates. And so we did an ad campaign featuring two kids who had lead poisoning, and lo and behold, within six months we helped to shut this incinerator down.
And so the foundation that gave me five grand to run these ads—you know the Reader and some other mainstream publications—then gave me $400,000 to start this nonprofit. And so we started doing all kinds of fun stuff, initially focusing more on communication. You know, we did a lot of the national ads and [unclear—“select”?] communications on it. And I saw just how passionate people in this movement were about their food. It’s like oh my god, this is awesome! These people really… And so at that point I’m like, okay, let’s do a bilocal campaign. And this is like 1999 or 2000, and I realized there was almost no local food in Chicago, despite the fact that we’re a farm state.
TM: Right in the middle of farm country!
JS: Right in the middle of farm country! Farmer Judd Peterson had some heirloom tomatoes in August, but other than that, there was almost no identified local food. And the organic was starting to ramp up now because of Whole Foods, but still most of the mainstream markets were not carrying organic at that point. And so I’m like, wow, how come we don’t have a local food system in a farm state?
And so I started talking to farmers and buyers and restaurants, and I realized there was no trade show. And I’ve been going to Expo West for now 25 years—this year there’s 80,000 people there, all trade, 3,000 vendors, and people go there to meet and connect and find new products and build relationships and get educated and get inspired. And I realized that there was no trade show like that in the local food industry.
And so a few years later, we actually launched what I think is probably the first sustainable local food trade show in American, in 2004. And Whole Foods gave a keynote, and Paul Kahan, who’s now a James Beard award-winning chef, he gave a key note. And 300 people showed up and 50 farmers were there, and they’re all doing business, and it was like, oh wow, this works!
I hooked up with the people at the University of Chicago Business School and we launched, I think, the first regional Good Food Financing Conference in America, partnering with the University of Chicago, and 300 people came to our financing conference. There were some investors, we had some businesses pitching, farms and food entrepreneurs. We didn’t do any deals that first year, but you know what? We realized, “There’s something here I think. If we stick with it, we’ll do some deals.” So we continued and now there’s a lot of deals happening in the Good Food investing space regionally now in Chicago. And it’s really been an exciting process to watch.
TM: Well, you know, Jim, wow, what a testimony to the amount of vision and courage that you have. Because you know, just being out there when no one else is doing something and saying, “I’m going to do it” certainly takes a huge amount of courage. But this vision of trying to bring the financing to the entrepreneurs, to the growers, and we can talk more about that. What I’m seeing is that you’ve been in a pivotal place where you’ve brought a lot of the community together who probably had some similar thoughts that you did, but weren’t probably getting anywhere. Tell us some of the people that you got to know in Chicago, that you’ve brought together around this wonderful food festival and this whole idea of financing and food policy and so on.
JS: You know, it’s really been a process. It started with our relationship with Whole Foods—they were our fist sponsor of our tradeshow 12 years ago, and they’ve been partners ever since. Organic Valley’s been a great supporter for just about every year. But now nearly every major buyer in the Chicago market, supermarkets, a lot of the distributors are now coming, so that’s been great. It’s been good for farmers building relationships, but also the distributors that are working with local products—you know, they’re building relationships both with producers, who are looking to sell more food, but also restaurants or supermarkets or others who are seeking products. And you know, the farmers or the CSA farmers have a pavilion, and food artisan are selling products, and so it really kind of brings the community together. But a lot of it is focusing on promoting these food and farm entrepreneurs and helping them build new relationships so they can grow their business.
TM: That is very exciting to watch. And also, I think, for me and for our listeners, it’s a great reminder how you can say, “Gee, we really want to do business a different way, with a different kind of food,” and that’s one thing. But then trying to build the infrastructure around it seems to be something that you’ve spent a tremendous amount doing, all the way from bringing the idea of a different kind of food to the public as well as working with farmers. How has that been as far as just a challenge to try and get that infrastructure in place? To have farmers who actually can produce enough, or who have the right cooling system? Has that been a real challenge to just be working with that infrastructure building?
JS: No doubt. We did a lot of work on food hubs three, four, five years ago. And a food hub is basically a business that aggregates product from local farmers and then sells it to buyers. And we realized that in some cases there just wasn’t the infrastructure that you’re describing available to help both get the product in a form that buyers want and, when it comes to produce, they need it to be cooled, they need it be packed appropriately, they need it to match their other specifications in terms of quality and so forth. And not all farmers had the capacity to do that.
So we did some work on food hubs to get a few feasibility studies, helped a couple food hubs get launched. And then also we created a book called Wholesale Success which trains farmers in food safety and postharvest handling and packing and other things that they really need to meet the needs of larger-scale buyers. And that book has been a huge success. We’ve trained now over 12,000 farmers in 42 states.
TM: Wow! Fantastic!
JS: I know! It’s like, a lot of farmers. In fact, we just finished a new book called Direct Market Success, because we realized that a lot of those farmers coming to our trainings were actually younger who weren’t really selling wholesale. They were selling at farmer’s markets, or a CSA, or direct, through other means. And we realized that our book was geared towards a slightly more sophisticated farmer who’s selling larger quantities to larger buyers. And so we spent a year researching what are many of the things that more early stage farmers could use to learn, in terms of resources, especially from marketing and merchandising and building networks to make their CSAs more successful and other things. And so we just published that book this year, and so we’re excited about that. There’s a whole new training program that we’re rolling out with partners across the country. And we hope to have similar success with this program as we did with Wholesale Success.
TM: You know, I’m just wondering, as we talk about this infrastructure building, there is obviously an infrastructure already for distribution and so, but so much of the Good Food Movement, the farmers are just too small to have taken advantage of that kind of distribution. I’m just wondering, are we seeing farmers now gearing up with enough volume that they are able to go in the more traditional distribution houses, produce and dried goods distribution places? Is that starting to open up a little bit for some of the larger organic growers, or are we still looking at the real need for food hubs?
JS: You know, I think that there’s definitely been an increase in the availability of aggregation food hubs in recent years. And, you know, like Wisconsin’s got Organic Valley, is a great food hub—you’re working with a lot of growers in southwest Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Food Hub started, I think they’re building a lot of new markets for farmers also in kind of more southern Wisconsin area. Illinois, we’ve got DeGroot Farms, which is doing a lot of aggregation here in Illinois. So we’re definitely seeing more of that. But also distributors like US Foods, they’re developing distribution centers geared towards regional produce across the country. And when a $23 billion company is starting to seriously move into this space because their customers are demanding it, I think that’s a good sign.
Of importance is that we also want to make sure that they’re taking care of the farmers, because sometimes bigger buyers are looking out for themselves—
JS: —versus the needs of farmers or making it win-win. So I think that part of what our movement needs to do is ensure that farmers have a place at the table when it comes to pricing and how the relationships evolve. So I think that’s something we need to stay vigilant around.
TM: Hear, hear, Jim. Thank you so much for bringing that up. I’m sure that a lot of our listeners don’t know that farmers, for the most part, don’t set their own price for things, which is actually quite tragic. Imagine, when you opened up your paycheck, if you never really knew what it was going to be. And for people who are growing the very food that sustains us—our lives—you’d think that we would do a better job at making sure they get paid.
For those of you who are interested in learning more about FamilyFarmed, there’s a lovely website, www.FamilyFarmed.org. And they have an excellent mission statement, of course, and some things that they really care about. And one thing really stood out for me, Jim, as I was reading through your website. In this part of your mission: “…advocate for access to healthy and affordable food for all people in communities.” And yet the Good Food Movement has such a—I don’t know, you might say an elitist shadow, or food that looks expensive and is hard to find. How can we get that great food out to everyone?
JS: Well, that’s a really good question and a tough solution, in part because our systems of feeding people, especially lower-income people in America, are not very good. And we’re in Chicago, where there’s still a lot of food deserts, or areas in which people don’t have good supermarkets. They’re maybe shopping at a liquor store or convenience stores, and all they have access to are sugary drinks and salty snacks.
So fortunately there’s been a movement in Chicago to start farmers’ markets in lower-income neighborhoods, and the city has really been pushing to get supermarkets throughout the city, especially in some of those communities that didn’t have larger supermarkets, which were more affordable, that everybody can shop at. So the city itself is starting to make some progress in that realm.
Yeah, I think when it comes to feeding people in need that recognizing that access to fresh fruits and vegetables is first and foremost. And whether it’s organic or not, I think that fruits and vegetables are really healthy, and we as a culture need to eat a lot more of them. If we can get organic products in communities that don’t have access to food in a way that’s affordable, that’s awesome.
And in fact, one of the graduates of our Good Food Business Accelerator—a company called Urban Canopy, it’s a social enterprise—they’re doing nonprofits in, I don’t know, maybe six or seven lower-income communities in Chicago now. And they’re really doing a great job of it. But that’s only six or seven communities, and there’s dozens of neighborhoods in Chicago that don’t have anything like that at all. So for people to at least have access to fresh fruits and vegetables at supermarkets that are affordable, I think, is a good place to start.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with visionary, Chicago’s Good Food Movement pioneer and leader, Jim Slama. I’m just wondering now, when you started out with FamilyFarmed and were thinking about all this, there weren’t very many farmers’ markets, were there, in Chicago?
JS: No. No, and now there’s a ton. You know, almost every neighborhood, more of the affluent neighborhoods almost all have farmers’ markets. But we’re increasingly seeing more in lower-income communities as well, with social enterprises offering them and in some cases subsidizing them, which has been great to see. So of course we want that trend to continue, and we want it to be good for the farmers but also to give everybody access to good local food.
TM: And let’s not forget about just what a beautiful community and event it is to go to a farmers’ market. You get to see your neighbors and chat and sometimes hear music. Farmers’ markets are wonderful as places to buy your fruits and vegetables, but I’m always so delighted with the feeling of community that permeates these farmers’ markets.
And it kind of reminds me of another one of your missions that I thought we should just touch on a little bit, and that was that FamilyFarmed.org was seeking to “respect and understand differences between urban and rural cultures and begin to bridge this divide through dialogue and economic opportunity.” What a lovely statement, but then also it begs the question, okay, what are those differences and how can we bridge this divide?
JS: I think we do it best by bringing people together at our conference and having conversations between folks from all over the Midwest, many of whom are farmers, and folks from Chicago who might be buyers or maybe are consumers, or whatever, and hopefully greater knowledge and understanding happens. And there’s more respect, but also there’s economic opportunity across the spectrum—which, of course, is a strong driver of interest for ongoing dialogue and hopefully commerce.
TM: I certainly must ask you about, it looks like in 2014 you dove in and launched yet another initiative called the Good Food Accelerator—very, very innovative, pretty interesting. I’d love for you to talk about it some.
JS: You know, we’ve been doing this financing conference since 2009 and realized that most of the businesses that were pitching for capital weren’t really ready for prime time, meaning maybe they didn’t have a great business plan or fully developed markets or weren’t thoughtful about the deal they were offering to investors. And in talking to Chuck Templeton, who’s a friend and founded OpenTable and also another business impact engine which is an accelerator for tech entrepreneurs and education and health care—and so I was talking to him about and I’m like, “Oh, so what’s an accelerator?” And he’s like, “Well it’s a sellers program for entrepreneurs. It helps them scale up, maybe raise capital, meet new customers.” I’m like, “Oh, are there any in food?” He’s like, “Eh, I’m not sure. I don’t think so.” I’m like, “So, should I start one?” He’s like, “That’d be a great thing to do.”
So a year later, we had funding from the Searle Funds at the Chicago Community Trust, a big foundation; Mayor Emanuel was on stage with us; Walter Robb, at the time Whole Foods’ co-CEO. And we announced the launch of the Good Food Business Accelerator. And basically, each year we have a competitive selection process with a selection committee, and we pick up to nine entrepreneurs. And then they go through a six-month program where we work on business planning and market development and customer development and help them figure out, okay, do you need financing? And what kind of financing do they need, and what might the deal look like? And in some cases they pitch our conference. And then they graduate, and hopefully they’re much better equipped to scale up and grow their business.
And so, over this three years now, we’ve have 27 entrepreneurs graduate. And businesses, either through the accelerator or also through our financing conference, have now raised over $36 million. So it’s been successful.
TM: So those of you out there who are budding entrepreneurs and are interested in this area, www.GoodFoodAccelerator.org. So, Jim, it’s just kind of in its infancy and it looks like you’re already having some success. Tell me, how are you monitoring this? What’s the future? How are you going to be developing this?
JS: Well, that’s a good question. Our metrics include dollars raised, jobs created, new retail outlets they’re in, sales. So we kind of look across the spectrum to see various levels of success for these entrepreneurs. And quite a few of these businesses have both raised capital but also are growing significantly.
And one of my favorites is a company called Jenny’s Tofu. And Jenny Yang, a Chinese-American woman, bought the company from her favorite tofu shop in Chicago [Editor’s Note: this tofu shop was known as Phoenix Bean]. And she was kind of puttering along selling at farmers’ markets, selling to mostly Chinese restaurants throughout the city, and then joined the accelerator. And then boom, we introduced her to Whole Foods and some other big buyers, and next thing you know, she’s building a huge new facility. She’s buying transitional organic soybeans from a farmer in Illinois and creating a whole new brand, which is now Jenny’s Tofu. And she’s knocking it out of the park. She’s hiring people and she’s going to be a significant size company.
So of course we want more Jennys. We want to see these folks buying local products, supporting organic farmers, getting it out there to consumers, employing people, and really building a more sustainable, healthy, local food system.
TM: As we look forward in Chicago, in the kind of work that you’re doing—gosh, you’ve got your fingers in so much infrastructure building, so many wonderful projects. What do you think, Jim? What do you see forward in Chicago for you as you continue to evolve this beautiful Good Food Movement?
JS: Well, you know, I think more regionally a big new opportunity is organic grain. There’s concern because so much of the organic grain in America is now being imported. A bit of a scandal popped up in that arena a few weeks or maybe months back. And the reality is that growing as much organic grain as close to home as possible makes a lot of sense for everybody, especially those farmers who might be able to access higher premiums by going organic and transitioning their land, doing it more sustainably and ecologically, doing crop rotation, building healthy soil, eliminating runoff of nitrates and other toxic pesticides into watersheds.
And so we’ve been actually working with a farmer friend who just put in a million-dollar mill in maybe two hours south of Chicago. Hooked him up with Whole Foods; [unclear] is a big customer that’s going to be buying a lot of grain from him. We’re talking to just five distillers who are sourcing organic grain in the Chicago market for their distilleries, looking at, oh, is there an opportunity to do this with craft beer by trading a maltery, maybe a hoppery? So two of the prime ingredients for craft beer could be grown really close to home and processed closer to home. Companies like Nature’s Path, they’re interested in sourcing more local organic grains for the Wisconsin facility, which is a huge 200,000-square-foot manufacturing plant.
So this is something we’re very interested in helping to contribute to, both in terms of recruiting new farmers, giving them referrals to folks who can help them transition. So I think this is going to be a new, significant growth spurt, I hope, in regional food production. And if we can help contribute to that, that’s something we’d be very excited to do.
TM: Jim, wow, terrific. I’m so glad that you are working on organic grain because we are each year growing less and less of it here in the United States and yet we need more and more of it. So, Jim, thank you so much for joining me today.
JS: Well, thanks, Theresa, and honestly the honor is mine.
TM: Well, it’s truly always a pleasure to have friends like you, Jim, where we know that together we’re doing some meaningful work that charges us and nurtures us and keeps us going.
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