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FIN: entrepreneurs shift to providing hundreds of meals a week to their local, global community

June 2020: The food is nourishing but it’s just as important to have someone come to check on you.

Communities across South King County, including immigrants, refugees, and families with low incomes, are especially vulnerable as they face multiple barriers to health care and other essential needs during the COVID related shut-downs. To help, the entrepreneurs in the Food Innovation Network’s Food Business Incubator have been working to transition their fledgling food businesses into a platform for providing hundreds of meals a week to neighbors in need.

What is the mission or vision of the Food Innovation Network (a program of Global to Local)

FIN is working to build healthy, prosperous and connected community in South King County, through food.

In what ways do you deliver on that vision?

Community food advocates who act as ambassadors within their communities in South King County.

Community engagement: This includes community kitchen dinners, community education, and outreach. Right now this is focused on distributing resources on SNAP benefits and food banks by meeting neighbors where they’re at, speaking their language, and giving them the support they need.

Community markets to improve food access: We started with two farm stands, supporting local immigrants and refugees who grow food in South King County. It has grown to include the Tukwila Village Farmers Market. This provides not just access to food, but the sense of community that comes along with it, by introducing them to the growers, who are from their community and offering education on how to use the produce.

Food Business Incubator: This is our largest program. we support and refugees and immigrants and other low-income community members who are aspiring entrepreneurs and want to start food businesses. We help them to and to develop, launch and then scale their businesses. As part of this, we were preparing to open a new space called the Tukwila Village Food Hall. This 2,800-square-foot facility will include a commercial kitchen with four cook stations, five food retail stalls (including one stall designated for pop-ups and cooking demos), and a community dining area. The space will accommodate 20 food businesses and supports other businesses and neighbors across the community.

How many how many graduates have you had as an incubator or how many are in it now?

We have helped more than a dozen businesses launch. And we have seven businesses that are preparing to launch as part of the next incubator class. When we open the new facility, we'll be able to provide kitchen access for an additional six.

Can you introduce us to some of those businesses?

Taste of Congo. The owner, Caroline, is a refugee from Kinshasa, Congo. From what we know, this is the only Congolese food business in the region, so her business has been really exciting for her community. She's been called out a lot for celebrations and weddings. But she’s also been really excited to grow beyond that community, by sharing Congolese food at farmers markets, catering and other community events.

Naija Buka. The owner, Lilian, focuses on Nigerian food and, in response to COVID, has started to offer a line of sauces and meal kits that people can order.

We have business centers from Mexico, from Iraq. And, as part of the incoming cohort, we have Cambodian food and Filipino food and Afghan fusion, African-American fusion and Argentina.

Where are you putting your focus right now and responding?

Over the last couple of months, our incubator businesses have been hit hard. Events, and therefor catering contracts, have been canceled. Sales has dropped. And now coming into what should be farmer's market season, they are expecting further reductions and missing out on the opportunity to meet new customers.

How much of a reduction in sales have the businesses seen as a result of COVID?

It’s been a near total reduction.

And, on top of that, all of the business owners all women. Most of them are mothers, they have families. They have needed to re-balance their lives, now that their kids are not in school. And, that means they have needed to put their businesses on the backburner.

But the main concern we heard, as the shut-downs began, was how are people, who are stuck in their homes, going to get meals? They really led the way in creating an emergency meals program, in mid-March.

We started with a few hundred meals a week that were distributed by our partners like the Somali Youth and Family Club and the Congolese Integration Network. We also worked with the City of SeaTac to distribute meals to senior neighbors.

How have they been funding this?

Initially, the entrepreneurs and staff contributed all of the food and ingredients. Then neighbors stepped up to contribute. It was all very grassroots.

We soon started reaching out to food banks and other partners. And that has enabled us to grow to serve six hundred meals a week.

We’ve received support from individual donors from other nonprofits and food banks like the store house in Covington. Food Lifeline, Des Moines Area Food Bank, Tilth Alliance, Macrina Bakery. Project Feast has pivoted to help with the cooking.

And we were able to connect with the American Heart Association who has provided stipends for the entrepreneurs to come and cook. That is helping recover some of that lost income from their own businesses.

What has surprised you about the impact of that meal program?

This started because we wanted to make sure that people who are isolated at home would have access to food and nutrition. But one thing we didn't anticipate was the importance of the community connection. Delivering the meals offers and opportunity for those at home to connect with someone in their community.

In addition, two volunteers, who went to deliver meals to seniors, found them down on the floor, unable to get up. They were able to get those folks the assistance that they needed. But what if they hadn't gone to deliver those meals?

The food itself is nourishing but I think it’s also just as important to have someone come to check on you.

What gives you hope and joy about the work ahead?

The latest word we've received is that we should be able to open our new facility, in some way, by late summer. Having that much larger kitchen and a more flexible space of our own, is really going to help businesses recover and grow. And, we’d like to keep the emergency meals program going – with more space, so we can reach more neighbors.

Hey, Seattle, here’s how you can help!

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