How Food Can Change the World 

Progressive Opportunities conference looks at crowdfunding and other ways of investing. Plus social justice in a produce box.

At Sunday's Progressive Opportunities conference in Berkeley, the role of food could not be overstated as a focal point for reshaping our world. "If there's anywhere people have really gotten the importance of local change, it's the food movement," said Elizabeth Ü, one of the most dynamic speakers at the event (which was produced by the Express). The speakers were level-headed pragmatists, with attainable goals and inspiring stories. If anyone is going to upend the system, it's these people.

Crowdfunding for Local Food Economies was a particularly inspiring workshop. The four-person discussion spanned two 45-minute sessions, and the hourglass still ran short before all the juicy ideas got their due. The topic was nominally crowdfunding, but it encompassed a larger exploration of different ways food entrepreneurs can secure capital.

The first speaker was Mary Rick of the San Francisco-based Hoop Fund, a middleman that connects small-scale lenders with Fair Trade farmers and businesses. Similar to the micro-lending platform Kiva, individuals make loans as small as $25 and investments are paid back in small, gradual increments. In lieu of interest, lenders earn discounted products from the entrepreneurs, fostering a strong sense of connection between the involved parties. Rick said her company plans to do a lot of work in Oakland in the coming months.

Lawyer Jenny Kassan, who's CEO of Cutting Edge Capital, advises entrepreneurs on the distinctions between different types of investments. She also helps navigate the tricky SEC restrictions that aspiring food businesses have to contend with. "It's ridiculous that we need to hire lawyers to solicit investments from our own community," Kassan lamented. Her presentation reviewed funding models like Kiva and Kickstarter that avoid securities regulation, as well as co-ops like Mandela Foods and Arizmendi Bakery.

She also showcased Gather, the critically lauded vegetarian restaurant that certainly needs no financial assistance at this point. But several years ago, when owner Ari Derfel was trying to raise $400,000 to launch his business, he used a securities exemption that allows funding from up to 35 small, unaccredited sources. Not only did these non-bank investors give financial assistance, they also created a community support network that helped fill tables during Gather's infancy.

Elizabeth Ü is the young firebrand director of Finance for Food, and is currently working on a book of the same name. She started her presentation with strong words of caution for food businesses in need of capital. "When you are offered money, I can't stress enough that you should know exactly what strings are attached," she said. "You don't want to be forced to sell out your values later." Ü had many suggestions for funding sources, including small "friends and family" loans and peer-to-peer lending, but she warned against venture capital for most small food startups.

The last speaker was Arno Hesse, co-founder of Slow Money and a trailblazer in the field of sustainable investment. Hesse just launched a crowdfunding platform for food businesses called Credibles. The tagline is "If you eat, you're an investor" and it comes with a simple premise: Investments are returned in edible credits rather than cash. Some of Credible's first entrepreneurs are Berkeley-based Gelateria Naia and Amber and Son Farm, a sweet little chicken farm in Sebastopol. Investors in these companies will get their dividends in gelato bars and pasture-raised eggs.

All four speakers showed not only that alternative food economies are within reach, but that we are well on our way.

Social Justice in a Produce Box

In honor of last Monday's "Occupy Our Food Supply" day of global action (and to celebrate spring's imminent arrival), here are two very affordable community-supported agriculture programs that support social justice and urban renewal programs in Oakland.

People's Grocery in West Oakland recently formalized its partnership with Dig Deep Farms in San Leandro, one of Northern California's only farms run by people of color. Produce is delivered once a week, and the prices are incredibly low compared to other CSAs (five-pound boxes are $10). To keep the prices affordable, People's Grocery offers sponsorships — your purchase of a $25 produce box will help bring produce to a low-income West Oakland family. Pickups are offered throughout the week in neighborhoods around Oakland and Berkeley. Call 510-652-7607, Ext. 25, or visit PeoplesGrocery.org for more info.

Urban ag collective Phat Beets Produce works on many programs similar to People's Grocery, but with a North Oakland focus. Their "beet boxes" are available in half shares for $14 (5-7 pounds) or whole shares for $24 (10-12 pounds). Reduced rates are available for people with WIC or EBT cards, and $2 of every full share provides produce for young people with dietary diseases. You can pick up at multiple East Bay locations on Saturdays and Sundays. Call 510-250-7957 or visit PhatBeetsProduce.org for more info.

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