The Zip local podcast ep 6
Hi and welcome to another Wednesday and another episode of The Zip, the ultra-local podcast. In this episode, I’m taking on a new side of local with guest Sara Elisa Miller, the development director of Fair Food Philly. Fair Food Philly is a local organization in Philadelphia that promotes local food purchases among local restaurant owners. That’s a lot of local, but I’m also excited to speak with Sara as she’s the first of, hopefully, many local nonprofit organizers I’ll feature on this podcast. After all my recent discussions with marketers and journalists, which I love, it’s also nice to get a perspective from people who operate within a particular community on the ground, so to speak.
You can listen here, or subscribe to The Zip on itunes, or any podcast listening tool. Or, read the transcript below.
Megan Hannay: So, today I’m speaking with Sara Elisa Miller. Sara had joined Fair Food in May of 2015 and most recently she worked directly under the dean of Columbia University School of Social Work as the Associate Director of Online and International Initiatives. During her tenure at Columbia, she wrote grants, managed large-scale strategic initiatives and worked closely with international NGOs, individual funders, and Jordanian government officials. Wow. Sara holds a MS in urban planning from Columbia University and a BA from Wesleyan University. Sara, I’m so excited to talk to you about Fair Food Philly, because it’s a local organization with a super local focus as well, as your mission is to help restaurants source locally for their ingredients. So, can you tell me a bit about the history of Fair Food Philly and also about your personal history in the nonprofit space and how you came to work with Fair Food Philly?
Sara Elisa Miller: Well, thanks for having me. I’ll start with the first question about the Fair Food history, because that’s really exciting to me. About 16 years ago, there was a restaurateur named Judy Wicks who’s a local legend in Philly in terms of being an entrepreneur, and she was sourcing locally for her restaurant White Dog Café from these small and medium farms and realized that if she didn’t get more chefs to buy from these farms, they were going to go out of business; that she couldn’t be their only clients. And them going out of business was really tragic both for the environment of the region and also for the food system in the region, and on a larger scale, the food system in general. When we have these small and medium-sized producers going out of business, then the whole system just kind of gets off balance and there are larger implications for that, but I won’t get into it.
So, she decided that the way she was going to fix that was get more chefs to buy locally, and so she and our founding executive director Ann Karlen basically started by knocking on doors with chefs and they figured out from there what the challenges and opportunities were. They worked for many years with farmers on getting them wholesale ready, so just because they had the produce didn’t mean they understood how to get it to the chefs and there’re all kinds of things in terms of the quantities that you’re going to sell in, like do you sell in a flat or do you sell in quarts? And of course that varies based on the product. So, they did a lot of years in wholesale readiness and then from there, the organization really evolved, and we’ve since been recognized by the USDA as a valuable part of the food chain and recently got our first grant from the USDA Rural Development for this work, which we call Value Chain Coordination, which is basically being an unpaid broker – we’re a matchmaker: we try as much as possible to find the right fit for a chef and a buyer and the farms based on their needs.
Megan: Wow. And so, that’s funny, because at ZipSprout, we call ourselves matchmakers as well, but in a different sense.
Sara: Oh, I noticed that when I first spoke to my ZipSprout matchmaker, and I said that we do the same thing and that’s exciting to hear.
Megan: Yeah. And how did you come to be interested in Fair Food Philly and move into working with them?
Sara: So, Fair Food had never had a director of development and they kind of grew slowly but surely over the last 16 years to the point where the executive director just felt like she couldn’t continue to steward both grants and individuals and sponsors, and also do the work of the organization, and really wanted to focus on that. So, they knew that they had to do that after doing a strategic plan. I came to Fair Food Philly because I, before I worked for Columbia University, worked for a wonderful chef named Dan Barber in New York City, and he’s known all over the world for his work in local systems and sustainability. I was really inspired by Dan and wanted to move into a role where I could be impactful on a larger scale rather than just at the restaurant scale, and so that is why I got a job at Columbia: so that I could study urban planning. I did that for several years, and then when my husband and I decided to move to the Philly area, I started networking and finding out what organizations were doing this work, and I’m so fortunate to have moved to the city where Ann is, because she’s an incredible mentor and Fair Food’s doing awesome, cutting-edge work.
Megan: Cool, so you kind of were on the lookout for Fair Food and then you found it and you’re like, “This is exactly what I’ve been planning for all these years.”
Sara: Yeah. And I had never been a director of development, per se, although I had done grants management and grant proposals and all that kind of stuff, and I think, also, that my background in hospitality has helped me too, in terms of listening to a funder or a patron and understanding what their connection is to the cause so that I can kind of solidify that and just make them fall in love with us a little bit more.
Megan: Yeah. So, specifically, what does – for people who maybe aren’t as familiar with the nonprofit space – what exactly does a director of development do for a nonprofit, and, maybe, what part of the world do you see, or what do you think would make– how do your brains work in a way that maybe the rest of us, our brains don’t work, or what do you see that the rest of us don’t necessarily see?
Sara: So, development in general is the role of bringing money into the organization. So, in a large organization, that will look very different, so you’ll have a whole team of development professionals: some that are focused on individual giving, some that are even more focused on large donations from individuals, some that are focused on grants, and some that are focused on sponsorships. So, something like a museum would have a full team of people, each with their specialty, and, as you can imagine, those have different skills. So, somebody who’s really good at grant writing may not be as strong in individual giving. At Fair Food, we are a tiny, tiny organization of about five to eight people with some part-time folks as well. So, I’m one and only director of development, I’m also the associate director of development and the assistant to development, I do everything. I get some help in crunch time from the other folks in my organization, but that’s pretty much it. So, I do individual giving and sponsorship and grants; those would be my three big buckets. My, as I mentioned, my background’s not development, per se, it’s in project management, so the way my brain works– I can’t speak to all development professionals, but I can tell you that what’s important to me is telling a story and getting at the heart of why we do our work, and I think for sponsors that means understanding what value they’re looking to get out of a sponsorship, because it is, ultimately, a marketing relationship. They may love our organization and really, truly believe in what we do, but, ultimately, if they’re trying to reach an audience, I need to be able to speak to that and explain that their audience is our audience, in a way, and sometimes brand alignment is a part of that, too.
Sara: I got a really nice – just as a way of telling story – I had a really nice reminder today of why we do what we do. I had a farmer answer a survey that we sent out that said, “I applaud your efforts. Farmers need to develop relationships with end-users, or they will continue to be taken advantage of by extended conventional supply chains.” And that just means the relationship [buffering? 10:45] that we do that’s free for them and free to the buyer, that’s valued by the farmers, and, ultimately, that feels so good, because that is– ultimately, we would just want to make the farmer’s life better and make sure they stay doing what they are meant to be doing, which is farming and stewarding the land.
Megan: Yeah. I feel like that one quote, honestly, we could do like a whole podcast just unpacking the implications in what that person was saying, but that’s so true. I think as everything gets more complicated and as globalization becomes a bigger thing, then as an individual, you’re often separated from the entities that you might even directly serve. So, that’s really cool that you–
Megan: Yes, that’s a wonderful way to put it, and I think the problem is that a lot of people say, “Well, why don’t you just have a list of the farmers and then if somebody’s interested, they can go on your website and look at the list,” and I think – you guys might say the same thing – like, “Why isn’t there just a list?” And the truth is that all these relationships need to be cultivated and there’s a greater public benefit that comes out of these relationships, so the public has an interest in supporting our work and making it happen. Yeah, I’ll leave it there.
Megan: Yeah, and also, I thought it was interesting that you brought up the marketing end, because as the person on the marketing side where it’s like I have clients who want marketing in their– basically what the message at ZipSprout is that, exactly, like the nonprofits you work with can be part of your marketing program: you can donate, you can do good, and you can also reach people. So, I think it’s interesting that you also see it from that perspective and you cultivate the story of Fair Food Philly as also a way of like, “Hey, you can help us and also reach people who might be interested in your product.” Is that something– when you say you cultivate your story, does it almost feel like you’re doing PR with Fair Food sometimes, with potential sponsors?
Sara: When I got here, like I said, there was nobody doing this work in my place, and I said, well, before I can raise money, I need to be able to tell the story of what we do, and so to do that, I have to collect stories and so I’ve spent a lot of time in the last year and a half interviewing farmers and artisans and buyers about why our work is important, and I think that that’s the best way to tell our story. And you’re absolutely right, I have to think of the sponsor’s perspective, that when we have a sponsor use their marketing dollars to align themselves or to support our work, it’s a huge value for us, because if – I’m going to be really technical about development, and I think you want to hear this – when you apply for a grant, it’s known as restricted funds, so it’s very specific: you tell the funder, “I’m going to use $6,720 for this and [inaudible 14:04] thousand for this,” and so on. And sometimes the funder will come back and say, “No, I don’t want you to use money for that, I want you to use money for this.” So, they’ll be very prescriptive on what you can use money for, and then you have to report on that; you have to prove that that’s what you’ve used the money for. Whereas when we get a sponsorship, what it allows us to do is put money towards all those things that don’t get funded but need to get funded. So, for example, overhead is something that funders rarely fill fund. So, they’ll say, “Yeah, I want you to put food on the table for those communities in need, but I don’t wan to pay for the delivery truck.” So, that’s something that nonprofits struggle with–
Megan: Like the not sexy parts of donating, you know what I mean, like–
Sara: And that’s something that all nonprofits struggle with, and when we have the opportunity to cultivate a sponsor relationship, it’s almost like that money’s more valuable. The same dollar amount doesn’t have the same value, because we can just really put it to where it’s needed as opposed to worry about what the funder– what we need to report on the funding, so, it actually is incredibly crucial to our survival.
Megan: Yeah. Oh, that’s really cool. Yeah, and I’m glad you got technical, because I didn’t know that, actually. So, for Fair Food Philly in particular, it’s interesting, because you’re a local nonprofit focused on the buy local movement, so, like I was saying just before we started, you’re kind of like meta-local for the purposes of this podcast. But how have you seen this movement grow in the past few years and whey do you think it’s so important?
Sara: That is a terrific question. I think anybody listening today in 2016 would probably say, “Of course we buy local,” or, “I know that that’s important.” This movement has grown tremendously in the last 16 years and what we’ve found is that that’s a phenomenal thing and we love it, we’re so excited about it. In a way, when we have more competition, maybe a for-profit would look at that as a bad thing, whereas we as a nonprofit think, hey, we’ve made a really big impact here, because we’re seeing more and more people source locally. One great example is that we– so we have a retail location in the middle of Philadelphia that is an year-round retail grocery store, and we came into existence when you couldn’t get any of this, before there were even a lot of farmer’s markets, so, really, these things were not readily available. Now, you can go to a farmer’s market, but maybe the farmer’s market is only available six months a year, one day a week, we are available full-year. So, a big part of our business is turkey sales at Thanksgiving, and we saw sales increase, increase, increase, over the last 13 years – because that’s how long the retail shop has been open – and in the last couple years, we’ve seen it level off, and we have a theory that what we’re seeing is not a decrease in interest in local, but more availability throughout the city of these local birds, which is awesome. More people are prioritizing them, more people have access to them, more people are buying them, which means more farmers are doing better, and that is really exciting to us. So, I think that that’s an illustration of how the movement’s changing, but I think that there’s still so much work to be done, because we, as a region, can just increase our percentage of what we buy locally. I think we have a long ways to go.
Megan: Yeah, and it’s interesting because, obviously buy local, and your– and I think it does kind of conjure up the image of food in general, although the people that I’m talking to – like I said, I’ve spoken to some journalists – and I think, in general, just the idea of local is becoming very trendy. You know, like people getting more interested in local news, local shopping, local businesses, even if they’re not food related, if they are clothing or local pet stores. Do you have any thoughts on why, just in general, there is a sudden surge in interest in buying local?
Sara: Well, before I answer that – I will answer that – but, Megan, before I say that, I will say that the term local means so many different things to different people, so maybe with clothing, local is domestic, really, because people are sometimes concerned with slave labor that is making mass-produced clothing abroad, and so you’re trying to buy locally and really buy a local piece of clothing. So, I think that that’s a really interesting distinction and it’s not contradictory to what you’re saying, it’s something that I think people have different definitions of, and even within food, when we talk about local, you always have to explain what you mean. Do you mean within 100 miles, do you mean within 150 miles, do you mean within the region? And the United States is so varied, but just because something is not from Pennsylvania, if something’s from New Jersey– it could be 10 miles away – it’s still local.
Sara: New York is still 70 miles away, so we can get stuff within 100 miles from New York all the way down to DC, and that’s a pretty extraordinary – we have such a wealth of a land and rich farms from within 100-150 miles – is pretty extraordinary. Whereas in California, 150 miles, oddly enough, as rich as they are in farming, 150 miles, depending on where you are, might not get you to a farm.
Megan: Yeah, if you’re in the desert, you’re– yeah.
Sara: So, it’s really interesting. The scale is really important. So, now let me go back to what your first question was, which, remind me again.
Megan: Sure, so just– I guess the overall trend in buy local. It just seems like it’s a much more prevalent thing than it was when I was a kid, for example, like it just seems– whether it is local news paying attention to what’s going on in your community, community involvement, or just the entire idea of, like you said, more farmer’s markets are popping up, and stuff. Do you see this as a trend that– yeah, how would you explain that trend, or is that something you think about with Fair Food Philly? And if it is a trend, is it something that you guys– if you’re riding that trend, is it something that might decrease in the coming years because of other factors that made the trend rise to begin with?
Sara: I don’t think it will be, and I know that sounds self-serving, but I think people are increasingly interested in understanding where their food is coming from or where their goods are coming from, because of the bigger implications for labor for the environment, so I think that it’s going to get more and more and more. But, I do think it’s pretty trendy right now, and unfortunately, within food, we see a lot of restaurants jump on the local bandwagon and don’t really do it. So, what we call local washing, similar to green washing, is happening more and more, sadly. There’s a big exposé that happened in Florida where they wrote this very long piece about the local washing in restaurants happening there, and it’s happening all over, it’s not just Florida, it just happens that they wrote the article there. But, I do think that there’s a real interest, it’s going to be consumer-driven, people are very, very– it’s very important to them, and I think more and more, when they understand that connection between environment health, the importance of the local food system, that they’ll be pushing for it more and more.
Megan: Yeah. So, real quick, local washing, I assume that just means they’re fudging– they’re lying about being locally sourced, or is that–
Sara: Lying, or they’re fudging, they’re saying that– maybe they bought one flat of strawberries at the height of strawberry season and then they call themselves a local restaurant. That’s– yeah. There’s all kinds of versions of local washing that are happening.
Megan: Got it.
Sara: And what is it to say that you’re an all– you can’t– first of all, Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, I would be hard-pressed to find an all-local restaurant. Just for example, citrus is a really critical part to any cuisine, like you need that citrus, whether it’s coming from a fruit or another kind of acid, and for the most part, citrus doesn’t grow in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic. So, again, you go back to that definition of local, so, you might say, “Well, you could get it from Florida and Florida’s not that far, so that’s okay with me,” that’s fine. Actually, Fair Food is not out here to be the local police. What we want to see is that when a product is available locally, that people are using it, so that local farmer benefits from that, so, in the height of strawberry season that you’re not getting your berries from California. If you want to get your berries from California another time, yes, go for it, that’s no problem; we’re not going to poo-poo that. But, when those berries are available locally, first of all, they are way better.
Sara: But also, let’s benefit the local economy and the local grower by prioritizing them.
Megan: So, yeah. And so, I guess on top of that, just some misgivings some people might have about the buy local movement is that food from local farms either might be more expensive, as you mentioned, it might not have the variety, although you spoke to that a little bit, but I think, also, in general, I guess any tension between a sort of buy local message versus people who maybe don’t necessarily worry so much about that comes down to the fact that it’s cheaper to produce at scale. And even if you think about–
Sara: Okay, well– okay, I don’t want to get too technical again, but here’s the deal. Yes, sometimes it may seem that we pay more for those local products. The reality, though, is that the mass-produced commodity products are subsidized by the government. So, it may feel like we are paying more, but we’re going to end up paying either way, so when– we’re either going to pay by the environment suffering, we’re going to pay by our local food systems completely deteriorating, because the small and medium farmers cease to exist, or we can pay a few more dollars now. The other thing is that labor is a really big issue in farming and we have a lot of commodity farms not paying a fair wage. There’re horrific stories out of California where the laborers are paid pennies and dollars by the day; not at all what the US standard is, sort of, on a whole. So, it’s hard– it is hard when you’re– look, I work for a nonprofit, I don’t make a lot of money, and it’s hard to say to just anyone, you should prioritize this, because at the end of the day, you need to feed your family. But, luckily, there are a lot of programs that match both SNAP benefits and extend the value of the dollar that you’re spending on fruits and vegetables and other local goods. We at Fair Food, out of our retail stand, we do operate a double-value coupon program, so we raise money specifically to be able to match people’s SNAP benefits – and that’s the federal government program that used to be known as food stamps – but, so, if you come in and you spend money, you spend $10, we’ll give you another $10 to match that, and it does help extend the value of that dollar. I’m not sure if I totally answered your question, because it’s such a complicated thing.
Megan: It is. Yeah, I mean, I don’t think in a half hour podcast we could really go into it, but it is– it’s an interesting thing that even just on us doing research in order to talk to you, I kind of always just want to find the opposite of whatever is being advocated just to see what people are saying, and I think that was one of the biggest arguments that I saw was just that– or just the idea that is it better to buy local? I don’t know. And I think some of it did come down to–
Sara: And can I just say that, Megan, sometimes when you buy locally at the height of the season, it isn’t more expensive, it’s less expensive. So, right now, I can go to the farmer’s market and buy three humongous zucchini for like a dollar, because that is such in abundance and this is the outlet that these farmers have. That’s another thing is that you, in the season, can often stretch your dollar and it takes more effort, absolutely, it’s so much easier. I have a two-year old and it’s so much easier to just go to a supermarket and just do a shop for the week, but– and it’s a privilege to be able to prioritize this, I don’t deny that. It’s a privilege to be able to think about where my money is going and the larger ramifications of how I spend my money and whether I want to spend it on local food, but it’s important to me, and I think it’s important to other people. So, just to go back to your question on whether this is just a fad, I think it’s trendy and I think there are plenty of people that will– it will drop off as soon as there’s a new thing in town, but I also think that it’s important and significant enough that it will continue. It’s not going to go away.
Megan: Well, yeah, and I think, especially, with organizations like yours, you’re kind of building the foundation to help it continue as well. So, I guess moving on to a slightly different topic, as far as, you spoke a little bit about finding funding, and obviously that’s your entire job. So, how easy or difficult is it to find funding, and, especially– you’ve previously worked with organizations that worked internationally, with NGOs, which– I guess my question is not only just what is it like finding funding for Fair Food Philly, but how would you say finding funding for a very local organization differs from fundraising for an international organization?
Sara: Okay, so, it’s really hard to find funding for this work and I think if it goes– we go back to my point about storytelling: it’s so easy – I don’t mean to belittle– I’m not trying to belittle other organizations, but when you’re, for example, putting shoes on the feet of needy children, that is a story that – I just told you – the whole marketing plan. I said that phrase and it tugged at your heartstrings and who doesn’t’ want to do that? So, there’s a really direct connection, it’s a short story, it’s easy to tell, and there’re great visuals for that. For what we do, it’s really hard for people to kind of conceptualize that, and I’m working really hard to tell that story and to make those connections, because it’s like multi-step process. It’s not like I get the shoe and give it to the child and they’re happy or their safe or they’re healthy, it’s like, “Well, if we get wholesale buyers for farmers, then they can have more stable businesses and stay on their land, which benefits the farmer and benefits the environment and benefits the public, and we’re better off as a general population.” So, there’re all these steps, so it’s really hard to find funding, and what we know in Philadelphia is that there are a lot of grants for food access, which is an amazing cause and so important: we have too many people, especially in the Philadelphia area, that need food on a daily basis that don’t have the money to get it, so, there are a lot of food access programs. There are virtually no funders; we have a few awesome visionary funders that are willing to look beyond food access and they come to the plate for us, but for the most part, people don’t get it.
Megan: So, I definitely see how, just because of the complication and the– yeah, the story is not as direct as we put shoes on kids feet, but also, do you think that size can affect that as well? Just because working– like you said, you have, I think, five or six or seven people in your organization versus an organization that’s international and has people all over the world, do you think, even– not only fundraising, but just the structural differences between local nonprofits and then these either national or international nonprofits, what would be some of the differences, just thinking structurally?
Sara: I mean, for one, resources. When you have an entire marketing team that can tell the story, where the development director can then just go out and steward the relationships, that’s completely different. International, you’ll have the reach, the name, it is really extraordinary to come– when I would come on behalf of Columbia, you didn’t have to explain who you are or what you do, people know that you’re Columbia University. That’s really extraordinary. And I can’t really speak to the ability to get funding, because our program that I was running was really driven by the Jordanian government, so they asked us to put together a proposal and then we got funding from the Jordanian government for that proposal that they had asked us. So, it’s a little different from when you have a program that you then search out finding for.
Megan: Yeah, you had a very big funder that was like, “Okay, here you go.” So, you spoke a little bit about Philadelphia in general and some of the really cool supporters you do have. What would you say, in general, the nonprofit community in Philadelphia is like? What makes that city special when it comes to being a local organization?
Sara: Oh, Philly’s wonderful and I’ve found such an open and welcoming community of fundraisers and people who are– I’m sure most cities are like this, where the people that are raising money for these incredible causes are so incredibly passionate, but in Philly, what I’ve found in particular is that they’re so welcoming and helpful. So, everybody I’ve met have said how can we help, how can we collaborate, and that’s been really exciting.
Megan: That’s awesome. I mean, it’s the City of Love, so that makes sense, but that’s cool. So, finally, if you could pick the brain of any public figure or a nonprofit figure over lunch, who would you choose?
Sara: I would have to go with Cecile Richards from Planned Parenthood, not just because I totally, with every bone in my body, believe in their mission and what they do, but also because she is probably the most– the president of the most divisive nonprofit out there and so I’d love to pick her brain on how she tells the story and thinks about the work she’s doing.
Megan: Yeah, like how do you tell a story about an organization that so many other people already are telling a story about and in different ways, depending on who you are and–
Sara: Not even fact space, you know, they just say whatever they want.
Megan: Right, but it’s like people are already telling your story, whether it’s true or not, for you, so it’s like she has to find a way to get the truth out there and to tell the story in a way that is beneficial. Yeah, that’s– I would be interested in talking to her, too.
Megan: Well, Sara, thank you so much for talking to me today. I learned a lot about, not just Fair Food Philly, but what it’s like to run a local organization that is also for locals, so, thank you.
Sara: Thank you, Megan. It was a pleasure.
Megan: Thank you.