Food Justice: Supporting Food Businesses Through Advocacy

As the Food Business Manager at Ventures, I think about how to help our food-based businesses succeed. For business owners that complete Ventures’ cornerstone Business Basics Course, we provide five key services:

  • Free specialized business coaching to help navigate complex licensing systems, create business plans, set menu prices, find sales locations, and more.
  • Industry specific workshops that explain things like the difference between a packaged food business and a restaurant, or how to start mobile food vending.
  • Affordable commercial kitchen space in Seattle’s Central District. Ventures sublets space at an affordable, sub-market rate in a licensed facility.
  • Financial services that include microloans, financial management trainings, and credit building and matched savings programs.
  • Access to markets through pop-ups, farmer’s markets, festivals, events, the Ventures Business Directory, and our retail store.

Over the last four years, we have learned that we can impact the systems that affect local food-based microbusinesses. Since 2014, what started as a conversation with local governments has grown into a campaign aimed at increasing the opportunities for entrepreneurs with limited resources.

Our advocacy with King County started with the launch of our food business incubator four years ago.

We received funding to provide affordable commercial kitchen space, access to markets through our retail store, the Ventures Marketplace in Pike Place Market, and a food truck. The food truck program was a model that allowed new business owners to test the feasibility of their business in a “low-risk” way.

Ventures covered the food truck and operating materials while the business owner covered their food costs and supplies. When it came to time to figure out the licensing for this program, we realized that each operator would be required to purchase their own permit from the King County Department of Public Health. Here’s the problem with that: mobile food vending permits are $1,100 per year! For program participants that were only looking to rent the food truck a few times a month to get some experience and training, that investment did not make sense.

We advocated with the health department on behalf of these business owners—explaining Ventures’ mission, programs, and the community that we serve. Over time, we came to an agreement that allowed us to operate our food truck program, pay the cost of the health department permit for operators up front, and give new entrepreneurs an entryway into the market. This was a huge success. Although we eventually made the difficult decision to wind down our food truck program, our team began to think about what else we could achieve if we spoke up on behalf of our entrepreneurs.

By bringing attention to key obstacles facing food businesses—be it high permit costs, language barriers, or scarce affordable commercial kitchen space—we had proof that we could make an impact through advocacy.

In 2017, we formalized our efforts by creating a separate program to advocate for our business owners.

That’s why I was so excited when Ventures created our advocacy program. As we built it out, I wanted to make sure that the work we had been doing was not lost. In order to better serve our food businesses, we have to give voice to the challenges our entrepreneurs face. I joined our internal Policy and Advocacy Task Force, which advised our leadership team on our recently-published policy priorities.

We are calling this our “food justice” campaign because we know that food entrepreneurs with limited resources face an uphill battle because of a lack of access to capital and other barriers. Ventures is committed to advocating for a more just system that helps all aspiring entrepreneurs succeed—regardless of their background.

As we work with the King County Department of Public Health, we have expanded our agenda to include several state-level barriers. In 2019, we will advocate to make public health and fire safety permitting standards more uniform and streamlined, which will save our entrepreneurs time and money when they work in different cities.

We are exploring opportunities to empower food entrepreneurs who begin their businesses as home cooks.

Recent policy changes in California have shown us that we can advocate for policy changes that broaden the range of foods allowed for home preparation and sale and create a sensible permitting process for entrepreneurs that cannot afford costly equipment or commercial space. By reducing barriers for home-based entrepreneurs, we can bring existing home cooks into the formal economy and create a more accessible system for all. We’re kicking this conversation off on December 11th with a night of storytelling and delicious food hosted by Prashanthi Reddy, founder and owner of Makeda and Mingus. Spots are limited, but you can reserve yours today!

Whether you are an aspiring home cook, a food business operator, or a Ventures supporter, I hope that you can join us on December 11th. Even if you are not able to make it, you can reach out to me or our Director of Advocacy and Communications Will von Geldern with additional questions about this work and ways that you can get involved.