2016 PFIG Recipient Grant Schwab
Journal Entry #1
My name is Grant Schwab and I just finished my first week interning at a nonprofit called the Local Food Hub in Ivy, VA. The Local Food Hub (LFH) is a food distributor similar to others popping up across the country as the civic impetus for local food grows. At the core of its operations, LFH aggregates food from small and medium sized food growers within an 80-mile radius of Charlottesville. It serves as a wholesaler to retailers, schools, restaurants, and other institutions across central Virginia. In simple terms, LFH (like other food hubs) makes local products more available to consumers. The Food Hub’s activities don’t stop there, though, as it takes a more holistic view of our food system and food issues affecting Charlottesville. LFH offers free technical assistance to its partner farms, works with local area clinics to “prescribe” fruits and veggies to patients as an innovative health measure, and partners with Cville schools to introduce healthier snacks into young diets.
I chose to undertake an internship with LFH because I have a personal interest food-related causes (e.g. nutrition, food security, environmental sustainability) and because I plan to study food policy as well as social enterprises through the Batten School at UVA. I came into the internship open, telling the staff that I want to learn as much as possible in any way possible. LFH is a small operation with only 12 employees, many of whom fill several roles. My position this summer is meant to sample the duties of all permanent staff. That includes strategic planning for community outreach with the philanthropy coordinator, creating promotional content with the communications coordinator, assisting the warehouse manager with food handling, and even (occasionally) helping out on the farms of partner growers.
My goals for this summer go back to my academic interests in food policy and social enterprises. With regard to food policy, I want to gain more insight into the specific challenges that different actors in the local food movement face. Are there policies that place greater or undue burden on the distribution of local food vs. large corporations? What drives members of the community to care about the cause? With regards to social enterprises, I want to gain more insight into how small operations can not only keep the organization afloat as a business but also play such a big role in a community. How are the skillsets for working at a small social enterprise different from a traditional business? How do team members involved in sales and business planning reconcile scaling up with the still-important educational and social elements of the organization?
In my first week I got to learn about the responsibilities of different team members here, participate in an office-wide planning session for an event this fall, and spend time in the warehouse to learn about distribution. I’ve been blown away by the quality of relationships that the Food Hub has with partner farms; there is less an ethos of “business” than committed partnership. I’ve been surprised too at how much emphasis there is on consistent community outreach; without frequent community involvement, funding and visibility it seems the business could sink pretty quickly. Going forward, one project I’m most looking forward to is partnering with the director of philanthropy in researching how the Food Hub might add new corporate partnerships.
To learn more about the Local Food Hub, see this video!
Journal Entry #2
Reporting back about midway through my internship. Over the last few weeks some of my main projects have been assisting with and staffing community outreach programs, researching best web analytics practices for our communications department, and getting a crash course in accounting for the organization. I should note that the most thought-provoking moments of late have come from days spent outside the office.
One thought was about the links between social enterprises. The Local Food Hub participates in a Boys & Girls Club program hosted by the PB&J Fund, a nonprofit in Charlottesville focused on promoting youth nutrition. Three organizations converging on one program. In so many words, it's excellent to see different groups unite to promote their causes (local food, youth promotion, and youth nutrition). At the same time, though, with so many players involved I do see gaps. The "local food" message is not strong with the participating youths, and the all-white PB&J staff is not quite a reflection of the all-black participant pool. Interesting points to ponder.
Another thought is about evaluating organizational activities. The Food Hub partners with Crutchfield, a local electronics business, to bring fresh seasonal produce to Crutchfield employees. I am involved with a similar program for UVA students ("Greens to Grounds") and was struck already by one element of the program: surveying. It's not a novel practice, but I was impressed at how well the Food Hub has surveyed program participants, analyzed responses, and determined how to improve the program from last year to now. In Greens to Grounds we've had a tendency to act without evaluating, so seeing the Food Hub's simple and effective survey strategy was a useful insight.
A final thought was about the relationship between public policy and food movements. In a meeting about how to promote Farm-to-School initiatives around Charlottesville-Albemarle, office staff and visiting guest Trey Holt (a local school chef) pretty explicitly separated policy from actionable steps from community members. Coordinating food procurement between local schools, working on staff training, and seeking entrepreneurial partners to act in the cause were focal points of the discussion. Public policy changes regarding school lunches and small farm promotion were noted as important and great aspirational goals, but ultimately separate battles to fight. Alas, the meeting treated public policy as non-agile and less important to promoting a cause than local action. As I enter the Batten School at UVA, that makes me want to study ways to make policy more agile.
During that Farm-to-School meeting, there were also rumblings on the practice of communicating a "why" for the local food movement as the single most important aspect to building support and doing anything of value. As for the last leg of my internship, then, I'd love to better understand the "why" narrative surrounding the Food Hub. Why does every person - from the accountant to the business director - at Local Food Hub care so much about this operation and the local movement as a whole?
Journal Entry #3
My internship officially wrapped up today when I gave a short talk to board members of the Local Food Hub about my experience interning over the summer. Previously, my last few weeks at the Food Hub continued to bring varied insights about strategic planning, community-building, and even warehouse optimization (fancy-speak for how to get smarter about food-counting).
A visit from a similar organization to the Food Hub was a tremendous opportunity to learn about non-profit scaling and funding strategies. Common Market is also a local food distribution non-profit based in Philadelphia. They works at a larger scale than the Local Food Hub, moving a substantially larger volume of food and offer more value added products. Common Market likely could break even as a for-profit business, so I asked their representatives why they resist such a transition. Decisively, they explained to me that becoming a for-profit business would be a bane to their funding structure and could damage their mission. As a grant-funded non-profit, they are accountable to other groups that align with their social mission. As a for-profit, the organization would be accountable to profit-seeking investors. I never previously considered the maintenance of equity in your own business as a reason to continue as a non-profit. (Not a ground-breaking insight, but a key one nonetheless.)
Similar to my experience with PB&J earlier in the summer, work on the Food Hub's Fresh Farmacy program was another learning moment on the intersecting social groups involved in food as a social issue. Fresh Farmacy is a multi-organization partnership through which low-income residents of Charlottesville are "prescribed" local produce to promote a nutritious diet and have vital health statistics taken at food pickup sites. In ernest, participant organizations seek to involve this sect of the Charlottesville population in activities related to gardening and nutrition. At one pickup site, though, I was fortunate to sit in on a dialogue between a Charlottesville non-profit worker and a member of Charlottesville's low-income population. The conversation was quiet and civilized, but the two groups were at odds and the non-profit faced difficult questions about program effectiveness. The moment served as an always important reminder that food movements must confront varied challenges in addressing varied populations.
On my last day at work (before the fun of a goodbye celebration), I had the great privilege of individually portioning vegetables for a Food Hub community program. Even with this task, though, I got to thoroughly discuss warehouse and operations optimization strategies with both warehouse workers and administrative staff that oversee operations. At the Food Hub, and perhaps most small businesses, it was heartening to see that no administrator is so far removed from operations staff and that a discussion for improving efficiency has participation from all positions. That moment reinforced my desire to work in small government or small organizations that are nimble and connected from top-to-bottom.
In this post I certainly do not seek to sum up my internship; instead I hope I've recorded another few insights. My internship during the summer of 2016 at the Local Food Hub was a stellar experience. As expected I learned about a variety of different branches of small business including marketing, sales, strategic planning, donor relations, bookkeeping, program management, and even supply-chain management. So, while a short blog post may not be enough space to explain my whole experience, I will leave readers with my contact information. If you are at all interested in learning more about the Food Hub, Charlottesville food systems, social entrepreneurship at UVA or any other related topic, please reach out to me at email@example.com. I also prepared a wrap-up document for the Food Hub detailing many projects and insights for the summer, and I would be glad to share it.
I'm wholly grateful to the Parents Committee and the Local Food Hub for this experience.
(And as always, go Hoos.)