An Interesting Twist in the Growing Feast of Food Philanthropy: Creative Placemaking

Kresge’s unique approach to food connects it to culture and placemaking in low-income neighborhoods. The huge number of applicants shows how big a philanthropic issue local food is becoming.

Staff at the Michigan-based Kresge Foundation knew going in to its new local food initiative that it was an area with big potential, citing the value of local and regional food sales at nearly $12 billion, more than doubling since 2008. 

They did not, however, expect that when the funder put out a call for proposals to use “food as a creative platform for neighborhood revitalization,” it would draw more applications for one opportunity than the foundation has seen in its entire 92-year history. 

More than 500 organizations applied for the Fresh, Local & Equitable (FreshLo) program, prompting Kresge to award a total of 26 grants, six more than planned. 

The sustainable and local food movement has sprung up in multiple corners of philanthropy—climate change, health, parks and gardens, economic development, justice—and become something of its own program area in recent years. Farmers markets, urban farming, and regional food hubs are on the rise, and among environmental grantmakers alone, sustainable agriculture and food systems giving grew by 52 percent from 2011 to 2013. 

There aren’t too many foundations that make this a primary issue, but it’s fresh in the minds of many different categories of funder, whether they’re interested in sustainability, poverty, or community strength.

Related: Will Curbing Food Waste Catch on in U.S. Philanthropy? 

Kresge’s new initiative adds an interesting twist, seeking projects that use food as a cultural and artistic force that can promote health, equity, and economic growth in low-income areas in the U.S. It’s a joint initiative of the foundation’s health and arts & culture programs.

"Food and cultural expression are inextricably tied together, and have been throughout history," said Stacey Barbas, senior program officer in the foundation's health program, with the announcement. 

In May, Kresge announced 26 organizations and coalitions from all over the country that will receive $75,000 each for planning their projects, totaling about $2 million in funding. Once planning is complete, grantees will have an opportunity to apply for implementation funding. Projects are meant to be neighborhood-scale and merge multiple disciplines to provide creative placemaking, health, economic development, and equity. 

Examples of winners include: 

• Nonprofits in McComb-Veazey neighborhood, one of the oldest in Lafayette, Louisiana, will create a Creole Arts & Culture District that will develop a “food-culture hub,” a micro-farm network, all supporting availability of fresh food, but also preserving Creole culture. 

• In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, grantees will work in the Morningside neighborhood, formerly surrounding a GE plant. Funds will go toward developing multicultural restaurants, capitalizing on the diverse immigrant population. Ideas include developing new food trucks and festival booths that could grow into restaurants, and inviting local artists to contribute to community gardens.  

The program is seeking a lot of different benefits, but they’re a natural fit considering many of these elements organically show up in programs serving low-income communities. Both local art and farmers markets are go-to tactics for revitalizing struggling neighborhood squares. Immigrant business owners can play a big role in building strength in depressed neighborhoods, and concentrations of restaurants can help rebrand a developing corridor (e.g. a Latin Quarter).

Local and regional food is an area of giving we expect to continue going strong, and the impressive response to the Kresge program shows there’s no shortage of ideas coming from hundreds of neighborhood groups in need of funding.