L to R: Lynn Loflin (Lenox Hill Neighborhood House), Alexander Breen (Seedco), Alix Fellman (WHEDco, Bronx CookSpace), Olivia Blanchflower (GrowNYC)

In preparation for our December 18th Urban Food Policy Forum on Growing Good Food Jobs in NYC we asked some of the city’s prominent good food jobs champions to weigh in on two critical questions: (1) What one thing could elected officials (e.g. mayor, governor, council members, etc.) do in the next year to promote good food jobs? and (2) What’s the biggest obstacle to increasing the number of good food jobs in NYC and how does your organization/company address this obstacle? Here is what they shared.

#1. What one thing could elected officials (e.g. mayor, governor, council members, etc.) do in the next year to promote good food jobs?

Lynn Loflin (Lenox Hill Neighborhood House): Our city and state governments could work together to create a program to help improve the physical facilities/kitchens in the hundreds of community-based organizations who cook daily for low income New Yorkers, with public funds (The Public Plate). These organizations are being told to cook healthier, locally-sourced meals but are largely not being given the technical training, the necessary equipment and resources to accomplish these goals. There are approximately 50 million of these Public Plate meals served annually in NYC, not counting the DOE and DOC meals. If we want these jobs to become Good Food Jobs, we need to invest in education for the folks that are already cooking these meals and the kitchen facilities in which they do this work.

Alexander Breen (Seedco): The New York City Economic Development Corporation and B Lab’s Best for NYC campaign provided more than 700 businesses with the tools to measure and improve business practices and strengthen their bottom line. Through the campaign, businesses that completed an assessment that measured social impact were provided access to no-fee financial counseling for their employees among other benefits. There should be stronger policy levers and incentives for employers who already provide their employees with safe working conditions, competitive wages, and health benefits but also create opportunities to link those employers with high rates of turnover to community-based organizations that can provide supportive services to their employees.

Alix Fellman (WHEDco, Bronx CookSpace): As an incubator, our approach to good food jobs is really making it possible for people to start businesses which create jobs for the owner and hopefully they grow to a point where they are hiring employees. That is our path to job creation and the kinds of good food jobs that I’m most concerned about. Of course, our whole reason for being is making it easier and more affordable for folks to start a good food business. If you are going to be making good food for sale it has to be made in a safe, regulated environment. Additionally, you need to rent the space, buy all your equipment, and pay for all of the utilities and this is a tremendous upfront cost. That’s why incubators like us exist. So, I guess, somewhat selfishly, I would say that one thing that would help us achieve that goal is helping us, the incubator, through financial support that can help us keep our costs low so that it is still affordable for people to come and start a businesses and create good food jobs here. The drama with Pilotworks closing earlier this year, now reopening as a new incubator, was a very good window into just how fragile this ecosystem is. Once a pilot incubator like this shuts down all of a sudden, over 170 business can cease to exist leaving all of their employees without jobs. This puts things into a perspective and also makes you feel a sense of urgency to protect these incubators. There aren’t many spaces like this in the city and without those places – where it’s safe and it’s actually achievable to start a small business – it becomes really, really difficult to grow good food jobs.

Olivia Blanchflower (GrowNYC): I think that training is a big one. Simple things like ServeSafe training or other credentials that make job seekers more attractive to employers. For supply chain jobs, things like OSHA and forklift training. Management skills are also key. One thing that we see is that people with “boots on the ground” jobs – like line cooks, warehouse staff, and others – don’t always get the chance to develop the managerial skills that they will need to rise up in their career. While it is important to look at entry-level jobs to get people who aren’t currently in the workforce employed, we should also keep in mind creating advancement opportunities. People should be able to see food as a career path that they could follow. So I would say supporting or promoting existing training opportunities would be important for electeds, and we should be thinking about training not just from the standpoint of “this is the proper way to handle food” and “these are safe lifting practices” but also think about the skills people need to grow in their field.

#2. What’s the biggest obstacle to increasing the number of good food jobs in NYC and how does your organization/company address this obstacle?

Lynn Loflin (Lenox Hill Neighborhood House): The biggest obstacle to more Good Food Jobs is the lack of investment in Food Service employees; including good pay, good benefits, and education of workers. We need to provide education in technical skills and insight into how a Good Food Job can empower them and their communities with the confidence and skills to buy, cook, and eat good food every day. The food workers at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House are part of 1199 Union, and therefore come under all pay, benefits, and collective bargaining of their union. Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, when negotiating with 1199, always pays our kitchen staff above the minimum 1199 Union wages, and our food workers are aware of this. Our food service workers are also given all of the benefits of our other 188 staff members including free gym membership onsite, swimming lessons onsite, driving lessons, language lessons and much more.

The Teaching Kitchen at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, launched in 2015, gives technical assistance to other nonprofits serving meals to low income New Yorkers on how to transform their meal programs to the Farm to Institution model that we have established over the past 7 years. All of our 390,000 annual meals are made from scratch, from granola to salad dressing, and 90% of our vegetables and fruits are fresh, with 40% coming from farms in our region. Over 50% of our meals are plant based and we are always striving to do more! These changes have not raised our food costs but they have increased labor and the skills necessary for the job. We invest heavily in our food service team in skills and nutrition education. Most of our 12 staff members have worked in our kitchen for well over ten years. Three of them have been here from 16 to 28 years. They are now much better positioned in the Good Food Jobs world with additional culinary skills, nutritional knowledge, and better pay. Our staff is The Teaching Kitchen.

Alexander Breen (Seedco): We’ve found that many food industry employers expect high turnover as a cost of doing business. Participants in Youth Advancing in the Workplace, Seedco’s employment program for 18-24 year-olds in the food industry have indicated that the relationship with one’s supervisor is a key determinant of workplace satisfaction. Small businesses struggle to identify affordable leadership development and training opportunities that would help equip employees with the skills necessary for a successful transition into management. Because of this, employees often assume supervisory positions without having first received adequate training. In response to this, Seedco has worked to direct its small business partners to low-cost professional development trainings within the CUNY system.

Alix Fellman (WHEDco, Bronx CookSpace): The biggest obstacle is, of course, insufficient money and resources. Apart from this, however, from the perspective of starting a small food manufacturing business, the regulation is also complicated. You have to figure out what agency dictates the regulation of your products and it can be cumbersome and expensive to apply for and obtain all the permits you need. A big part of our job, and places like us, is therefore to provide technical assistance to help people through that process but we also struggle when our regulatory agencies change the rules, which happens sometimes. Though we have been here for a while now, we have run into issues too and we know this is true for other incubators and shared kitchens as well. Having that challenge, that kind of a regulatory hurdle is real both for us and for folks who are just starting.

In terms of solutions to these challenges, we usually provide people with a checklist summarizing all the things they have to do during the permitting process. We sit down with them and we walk them through the paperwork and the application and make sure that they understand all the things that they have been asked to provide. But, even after that point, it’s important to be able to stay in compliance and be able to keep up with that, which could be difficult as well.

Additionally, there are several food business incubators in New York and we are increasingly communicating with each other. We now have an established consortium called Foodcubate which meets quarterly and, at those meetings, we discuss common issues we all have. It’s also a good opportunity for us to understand how the Department of Health is feeling about things, which might vary from borough to borough and also poses challenges. So yes, growing good food jobs in the city is not easy, but we are trying to stick together and make sure that we work and communicate with each other, share what we know to be the current rules that we have to comply with, and pass this information to our members and our clients.

Olivia Blanchflower (GrowNYC): A lot of the food jobs in the city are not necessarily good food jobs. There are the star chefs and the people who run a boutique butcher or a successful retail chain and then there are the thousands of people who work to feed us all – a great many of whom are making minimum wage. I don’t get the feeling that, on the whole, the food leaders of tomorrow are being intentionally cultivated from people who are doing entry-level jobs now.

At GrowNYC, we try to engage more people in food work by hiring from the communities we serve and by promoting staff who have gained on-the-ground experience in our programs. On my team alone, at Greenmarket Co., we see some great examples of this. Our Operations and Logistics Manager, who runs our entire warehouse and delivery team, started with us as a Youthmarket Manager. We also just hired a new team member in our sales department who previously ran Fresh Food Box and food scrap collection sites. We find that this works well for us because we value the skills that people gain in the field when they are in those entry-level positions and build on that foundation as they gain more responsibility within the organization.