PLANT CHICAGO – SYMBIOTIC COMMUNITY OF FOOD BUSINESSES @ THE WASTED CITY BOOK

"We’re working to make our cities healthier and more efficient by developing and sharing the most innovative methods for sustainable food production, energy conservation and material reuse." – Jonathan Pereira

Increasingly disillusioned with industrial mega-farms that characterised much of our modern food system, many cities are witnessing a renewed interest in more socially and environmentally conscious systems of local food production. In the sixth entry to our ‘The Wasted City’ interview series, we’re back in North America to the find out more about ‘Plant Chicago’; a non-profit initiative seeding core notions of circularity into local food production. CITIES’ independent researcher Alex Thibadoux talked with to Jonathan Pereira of Plant Chicago to get to explore the roots of the initiative. Check out the interview below!

TitlePC

 

Can you tell me what Plant Chicago does?

At Plant Chicago our mission is to develop the circular economies. We do that through three program areas. One, research and demonstration around systems thinking. So actually trying to waste loops between businesses- demonstrating the potential of that. We run a year-round marketplace to engage small businesses and circular economy thinking. And then we also do education programs, which involve tours and workshops for all ages. We are housed out of The Plant, which is a project, really a for-profit/nonprofit partnership to create a closed loop circular economy community of food businesses. The building itself is owned by a for-profit developer and there are over a dozen food businesses in the building in Plant Chicago. Of the food businesses, you now have beer, bread, coffee roasting, various greens operations, mushrooms, an ice company, a spice company, a cheese monger, kombucha, and all of them have waste outputs from their businesses, which we are looking at how those outputs can become inputs for others, and really keep those materials flowing through the system. The building itself, the developer planned as its own macro, closed loop system. So there is a partially completed anaerobic digester in the back. The goal is that the anaerobic digester can accept any larger organic waste streams such as the brewer’s grains as an input for that process.

How large is your staff?

Five right now.

Are you are set up as a non-profit within there?

Yes.

How did it all start?

John Edel, he is the owner of the building, he bought it in 2010 with this idea of creating a vertical farm and closed loop system. It has really evolved since then to become a whole community of businesses, and he founded Plant Chicago in 2011 to generically provide education and research around some of the concepts that were going on here. In 2014 he stepped away; I came onboard in 2015. We are really operating as separate but complimentary entities right now.

What is your collaborative network?

So within the building, the other businesses. And then we collaborate a lot within our neighborhood, the Back of the Yards community. So working with a lot of community organizations, most of which don’t have any mandate for environmental issues or food necessarily. That, and there are a lots of other organizations across the city that are touching on circular economy concepts, Rebuilding Exchange is another one. They are looking at materials reuse. When we talk about locally focused, we are focussing on the neighborhood that we are in. The farmers market is really a tool to engage the neighborhood.

©Reclaimedtable
©Reclaimedtable

What about your funding and support scheme as a nonprofit?

Anywhere, depending on the year, 40%-60% foundation. Close to 20% is program revenue and then a mixture of special events, government grants, corporate donations.

Within your organization, how do you all make self assessments to figure out when what to change or what direction to go in?

There are variety of levels and some of those things we are still working on. At the staff level it is looking at setting yearly goals for the following year. At the board level, it is sort of a yearly meeting, a retreat, to think about where the organization is headed. What I am hoping to do is come up with a 3-5 year plan. To work with an outside consultant to do that since we are working with so many different stake holders, and this is a complex problem, effectively focused on collective impact. There is no single person or entity that can set this out; we need to do it as a community. That is what I am hoping will happen in the next year.

How many people are involved in the whole operation, including all of the companies, roughly?

This changes a lot, it is growing. I would say that there is at least 60 people in the building between our staff, and then you have the building owner manager, really two full-time people, and then there are a whole host of people that come on redesigning infrastructure in the building temporarily. So each business, it can range from one single person to you know, fifteen. The brewery is growing the fastest right now, so I don’t actually know where they are. There are new people coming in.

©Plant Chicago
©Plant Chicago

What sectors of the economy do you think you are having the most influence on?

Food.

Are you trying to grow larger or are you at capacity there?

There are probably two parts to that question. One, you might be talking about the building itself. We don’t really have a specific agenda for filling more spaces in the building. I know there will be more space. So there are more opportunities to collaborate with future businesses. We don’t even deal with that. That is the revenue stream for the for-profit, so we kind of divorce ourselves from those talks. In terms of an organization, yes, I do see opportunities for growth as we try to get on the ground and figure out how we can not just incentivize, but facilitate a flow between businesses.

Is there anything that is preventing your growth right now?

Funding. Funding, but also figuring out a revenue model to support that. So I mean, you can always apply for foundational funding, but then thinking about what is actually the revenue model that would support an ongoing activity like that? That is more challenging.

Is there anything else that could help you become bigger, or aid your growth and become more mainstream?

No, I think it is the things we talked about, the short term things like coming up with the strategic plan. Also just consistent funding. The landscape for philanthropic giving is really shifting in the US. We have gotten funding year to year from various family foundations and things like that, but family foundations can be fickle. Really thinking about developing partnerships with funding streams just as corporations, foundations that are willing to invest on a multi-year basis. The year by year thing is just draining, because you spend a lot of time chasing funding year to year, and it distracts you from the work that you are supposed to be doing. I think people willing to invest over the course of several years. We are thinking about conditional funding, but being able to make a commitment would be much more helpful, and I am not sure that the philanthropic community is moving in that direction. The trend right now seems to be “let’s do competitions and give one entity a wad of cash to do something big,” as opposed to spreading that around and thinking “how do we invest in a lot of different ideas, but over several years?”

©Plant Chicago

©Plant Chicago

 

What kind of material flows are you altering currently?

Spent grain.

And you will also be taking in municipal food waste, I think I read somewhere?

Yes, so that digester itself would be able to do 16 tons of food waste per day. That is more than collectively the businesses in The Plant would be able to produce. It would have to be an aggregator of local food waste. There is certainly plenty of opportunity nearby.

How do you imagine Plant Chicago in the future?

As a local and regional facilitator of the circular economy. Being able to connect these businesses that work well together, and demonstrate the economic benefits of that.

In what ways do you interact with the community the most right now?

There are a number of ways. Our farmers market is one way. Engaging with the community is getting them into the building and engaging with the community out in the community. You know engagement is not a one way activity. Our farmers market and education programs are what we do here in the building, and then there are things like the Peace and Education Coalition, and the community being involved in other stakeholder needs and desires for the community, other than just what we want.

 

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Created on 01 August 2017

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