By Lillian Mathews – an Environmental Studies graduate from Brown University who has spent the last year implementing an arts-based gardening site in Rhode Island.
Food talk is hot these days. Urban planning councils and governments now implement sustainable food mandates, and city revitalization projects are transforming old buildings into gourmet mixed-use shopping centers. It would be easy to assume that food producers have an easy time getting their products to city consumers.
Yet even with a growing appetite for their goods, food producers still struggle with urban distribution. Culinary entrepreneurs have to get creative, using online marketing and web storefronts to identify new clients. But the biggest problem for many is finding adequate space in increasingly cramped urban centers.
In response, the community kitchen has popped up over the last decade to serve producers who need access to space and professional equipment to prepare and distribute food products. Their missions vary depending on location, and include a community kitchen in Providence, Rhode Island, where jobless adults can receive professional food training, as well as Vancouver’s Fresh Choice Kitchens, which works to cultivate an all-abilities cooking community in the city.
In San Francisco, Forage Kitchen is a new variation on the traditional community kitchen model, but with a bit of a rougher edge. The project was founded by Iso Rabins, an architect of the Bay Area’s rebellious food movement, well known for his focus on foraged ingredients and run-ins with the Department of Public Health. Rabins disliked that there was no low-cost hub for food producers and foragers who wanted to get their foot in the market door without the regulatory hurdles. The new venue, most recently seen on Kickstarter, is marketing itself as a kitchen, storage space, and site for business incubation.
For many community kitchens, the final difficulty is locating and leasing a large enough building. Forage Kitchen is looking in San Francisco for a former warehouse space that is 8,000 – 20,000 square feet – no easy feat considering the city’s high real estate costs and dense development. Establishing a revenue stream is equally important to ensure that a project remains sustainable after it opens. When completed, Forage Kitchen will offer a tiered payment system for users, including a $99 monthly fee for those who use equipment for large batch food production — such as canning — or a lower fee for community members who only want to attend workshops and events. The price is also small for those who simply need certified spaces to do their work. A community kitchen ensures that producers can fill a consistent call for locally sourced foods.
What other cities would benefit from the community kitchen model? Does it only work in places with an existing emphasis on small scale and artisan food production – or could a community kitchen facilitate a new urban food culture?