FEED Kitchens in Madison helps start-up food businesses grow

It’s nearly impossible to grow a start-up food business without access to a commercial kitchen.

So says Karen Bassler, executive director of the Madison’s North Side Planning Council, which launched FEED Kitchens on Madison’s North Side in November. FEED stands for “Food Enterprise and Economic Development.”

Bassler said the $1.57 million food business incubator was funded with hundreds of donations, small private investments, a $500,000 grant from the City of Madison and a $400,000 loan from Forward Community Investments, a Madison-based lender that funds non-profits and cooperatives.

“FEED Kitchens is the brainchild of a number of people who had been thinking for years that we needed some place in Madison where we could kick start businesses for people who could not invest in a whole kitchen of their own,” said Bassler.

According to its website, the project’s mission is to create an enterprise that supports local food entrepreneurs and the development of food-related employment by providing five commercial kitchen spaces for food processing… increasing the availability of local, healthy and affordable food in the greater Dane County area.

Bassler said FEED Kitchens was established primarily for the entrepreneur who wants to start or grow a food business, such as food cart vendors or caterers. But as the conversations over the project continued, Bassler said backers realized the facility also could help non-profits get fresh vegetables and produce to schools for healthy snacks and salad bar items.

The location of FEED at a North side shopping plaza near a bus line helps the facility also serve as a community center, where local groups can do food preparation for fundraisers, and as a job training site for the unemployed and former inmates. One initiative works with local restaurants to develop an internship program that could lead to full-time employment.

“We also had 400 individual donors giving everything from $5 to $10,000,” she said. The City of Madison grant came from its Community Development Block program.

“That really helped with the rest of the fund-raising effort,” she said. “It made other people believe that this was a project that was moving forward.”

Forward Community Investments, a community development lender that also invests in shelters and clinics, finished the financing of the project, said Will Hughes, who handles sustainable food and agriculture lending for the 20-year-old organization.

He said his group was interested in helping finance FEED Kitchens because it will help create jobs, provide healthy food and serve low-income and special-needs populations. He said there are several other projects like FEED Kitchens elsewhere in the state that his group may back.

Hughes noted an “outpouring of community support” for the Madison project. “But when it came to the end of the line and there needed to be more lending from a formal institution, we stepped in where banks didn’t seem to be very willing. That is what a (community development financial institution) should be doing, going where other lenders won’t go.”

And while the facility isn’t aimed directly at solving the problem of food deserts – neighborhoods lacking in markets with fresh produce – she said the FEED Kitchens may be able to help.

“We are a production facility, while food deserts are more of a retail issue,” she said. “But what we are able to do is take in produce at the end of a farmers market.

“They might have pumpkins or apples left over or produce that is not really beautiful so they won’t be able to sell it at a farmers market or a grocery store. There is a group working in the kitchen to process that food into something value-added and maybe give it a longer life like soup mixes or apple butter.”

She said some of that food makes its way food pantries, providing the poor access to fruits and vegetables.

And she lauded a group called “Gardens for Empowerment,” which helps put gardens in the front yards of impoverished neighborhoods, then hires local kids to tend them. When the vegetables are harvested, she said, the produce is free for anyone in the neighborhood who wants it.

“Something like that could have an intersection with the FEED Kitchens down the road,” she said. “It’s hard to tell how this will all evolve.”

— By Brian E. Clark

For WisBusiness.com