It was a bit of a homecoming on February 18 when Food Tank kicked off its monthly thought leadership series at The Hatchery, the food business incubator located in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood. The non-profit, which describes itself as the Food Think Tank, was launched in Chicago in 2013.
Danielle Nierenberg, who said her parents were born in Chicago, is president and co-founder of the organization. Food Tank’s global view on the health, environmental and economic benefits of a better food system has attracted well more than 300,000 followers to its Facebook page.
And to provide a similarly broad view about Chicago’s role as an epicenter for Good Food business and thinking, Food Tank invited Jim Slama — founder and CEO of Chicago non-profit FamilyFarmed and co-founder of Naturally Chicago — to play the anchor role as the fourth and final expert interviewed at the event.
Slama started out his conversation with Dawn Reiss, an award-winning multimedia journalist, by explaining his own evolution from environmental activism to his two-decade role as a catalyst in Chicago’s impactful Good Food movement. Slama explained that Sustain, the environmental advocacy group he started in the 1990s, led a successful campaign to close a lead-emitting Chicago incinerator that was putting the health of local residents, especially children, at risk. “That was so empowering and personally important to be able to have that kind of impact,” he said.
The shift to a food focus began with another successful campaign, titled Keep Organic Organic, that marshaled public support to block proposed USDA rules that would have allowed genetically engineered food grown in sewage sludge to be labeled organic. The clincher came in 2004 when Slama and his team presented the nation’s first trade show focused on local and organic food, the beginning of the Good Food EXPO that remained a flagship event through 2019.
FamilyFarmed was officially started in 2006. The organization created a series of programs to facilitate relationships across the industry spectrum, with a vision of Good Food on Every Table: the Farmer Training Program in 2008, the Good Food Financing & Innovation Conference in 2009, the Good Food Accelerator in 2014, and Naturally Chicago in 2019. Under development are Good Food is Good Medicine, aimed at fostering greater public and community understanding of the connections between food and health, and Good Food Accelerator Extension, which targets entrepreneur development to minority and women entrepreneurs in underserved communities.
The Accelerator’s 6th entrepreneur cohort is getting its six-month intensive learning experience under way, with nine early-stage businesses taking part. Reiss asked Slama what factor is most important for businesses seeking to qualify for the program, and he said, “We look for differentiation. You have to have a great product that’s different than other products in the marketplace.”
As an example, he cited, Jenny Yang of Phoenix Bean Tofu, which also sells under the Jenny’s Tofu brand. “She came to us as an early Accelerator business. She’s using Illinois soybeans, some of it’s transitional, some of it’s purely organic. And she had all these recipes for great sauces and other things,” Slama said. “She totally differentiated, that did not exist in the marketplace.”
Slama went on to say that building connections with industry leaders and experts — and listening to their advice — is key to food business success. “If you have a meeting with a buyer and they say, ‘Maybe you’ve got to do this, or maybe you want to change your packaging,’ listen to them, because they get this marketplace,” Slama said. “They’ve seen other products like yours, and there’s reasons that you might want to listen to them.”
And networking through organizations and programs that facilitate food business growth is key to making those vital connections: “The Good Food Accelerator, our mentors are world class. The Hatchery has great mentors and others here, they have great programming. We launched Naturally Chicago last year with Brandon Barnholt, the CEO of KeHE Distributors, and Tony Olson, CEO of SPINS, which is the industry’s leading data company, and Bill Weiland of Presence Marketing, the largest natural food broker. Our Board is world class and that’s a great network. So there are opportunities, and Chicago is rich in it. We’ve got more in programs to support emerging entrepreneurs, with those like Chicagoland Food and Beverage Network, than any city in America, and so there’s opportunities for people and emerging entrepreneurs to get involved. So engage across the board and figured out where you’re going to get the most support.”
Slama’s chat capped an engaging evening that also included:
• Jose Oliva, who has done great work on fair labor practices in his longtime role with the Food Chain Workers Alliance and his current role with the HEAL Food Alliance (interviewed by Food Tank’s Danielle Nierenberg)
• Chicago Alderman Walter Burnett Jr., who discussed food’s impact on economic development with Dalton Barker of Crain’s Chicago Business
• Raya Carr, a Good Food Accelerator graduate who chatted with Grace Wong of the Chicago Tribune about the pioneering regenerative agriculture practices at her family’s Mint Creek Farm livestock operation in central Illinois and her work with Iroquois Valley Farms, an investment firm that buys farmland and rents it to family farmers who transition it to organic.