Exploring Opportunities in Urban Farming

Exploring Opportunities in Urban Farming

Greater Grand Crossing is a predominantly African-American community located eight miles south of Chicago’s downtown loop. Of the 30,000 residents, nearly 40% are living in poverty. The Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood faces many of the same issues that plague the other high poverty areas and Chicago’s Southside more broadly: high rates of unemployment and violent crime and a lack of access to high quality education, safe housing, updated infrastructure and affordable healthcare. The life expectancy of a Greater Grand Crossing resident is 11 years less than that of Chicagoans who live in the loop.

In many densely populated urban areas, especially those with high poverty rates, access to fresh healthy food is also scarce. In Greater Grand Crossing, the situation is no different — 55% of households are at risk for food insecurity. Fortunately, the Gary Comer Youth Center (GCYC), in addition to offering after-school programming for young people in the community, has a 1-acre urban farm that produces more than 20,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables every year. This farm serves the dual purpose of (1) developing educational opportunities and career pathways for young people and (2) providing access to fresh, healthy food to the community.

What was the problem?

GCYC asked the Frontlines in America team to focus its work on the utilization of the urban farm. While the urban farm currently provides employment to staff, hands-on education and employment to student interns, and donations of fresh produce to the local community, Executive Director of the Comer Education Campus, Rhonda Hopps asked the FIA team for ideas on using the farm to create a social enterprise. If viable, this social enterprise could continue to provide employment opportunities for the Center youth, but also address the neighborhood’s unmet market needs and provide sustainable revenue to the Center in order to reduce the dependence on grant funding.

What did we do?

In order to determine whether GCYC can generate sustainable revenue by selling products from its urban farm, we performed rigorous market analyses on representative products across three different categories – wash & sell produce, minimally processed products, and highly processed products. In addition, we explored other non-food items – such as poinsettias – as potential high profit complimentary offerings. Our analysis included exploring cost structures, price points, and target customer segments across each product category.

What was the turning point?

During the interterm week, with input from our GCYC partners and invaluable support from our advisors, we analyzed the value chain and performed a profitability analysis for each proposed product. We also visited another local non-profit urban farm, which had reached a level of financial sustainability in part by focusing on production. The information we gathered on this visit, combined with our analysis, made clear that the GCYC farm was not operationally capable of reaching the production necessary to become financially sustainable without sacrificing its education-oriented mission. Shifting to a production and sale model would be detrimental to the educational outcomes of youth and prevent GCYC from continuing its current level of healthy food donation to neighbors.

With that in mind, we considered alternatives. Armed with the knowledge that the farm products themselves would never be able to generate the profits that GCYC needed, the team dedicated itself to exploring additional possibilities.

We developed a matrix-based method to measure various crops across the key dimensions important to GCYC’s mission. Using this approach, we built scenarios to optimize for each dimension, as well as a blended scenario that appears optimal across all of these dimensions. In addition, we began to uncover ways that GCYC could better leverage the farm to tell its story and harness the wealth of expertise among its team to generate new sources of revenue.

What was the recommendation?

Ultimately, we recommended that GCYC utilize the farm as a marketing tool and classroom rather than a primary source of revenue, and work to systematize potential new sources of revenue that require low effort but have high financial returns. Our three recommendations were:

  1. Optimize the current crop mix to grow higher-impact fruits and vegetables. We provided several tools to GCYC for understanding the impacts of selecting certain crops, including potential yields, revenue, the mission-aligned educational outputs, and potential health impacts. Even if value-added products are cost-prohibitive, the farm can still generate higher revenue from its existing land by choosing a slightly different mix of crops and use the tools provided to ensure that all crop decisions are being made with not only cost, but potential educational and health benefits in mind.

  2. Form a single narrative about GCYC’s youth development and urban farming. The GCYC urban farm is well-known within the neighborhood, but currently receives contributions from fewer than 250 donors. Connecting with individuals at the grassroots fundraising level presents an opportunity not only to build the Center’s financial stability but to raise awareness and support outside of Greater Grand Crossing. A cohesive story and branding narrative can help reach many more potential donors and partners who may live outside of Greater Grand Crossing.

  3. Develop additional sources of revenue strategically. Exploring synergies between giving tours, working the farm, and corporate events could lead to new revenue opportunities while simultaneously enhancing GCYC’s role as a hub in the community.