Faces & Visions of the Food Movement: James Johnson-Piett

James Johnson-Piett is responsible for the overall management of operations and strategic vision for Urbane Development, a community and economic development firm based in Philadelphia. He specializes in neighborhood scale development and the revitalization of urban commercial and retail amenities. His work focuses on strengthening neighborhood commercial and retail enterprises by providing services and expertise that infuses principles of social entrepreneurship, sustainability, and technical acumen into the core of his client’s operations. He serves as Treasurer on the Board of Directors of the Community Food Security Coalition, is a co-convener of the Healthy Corner Stores Network, and a member of the Philadelphia Development Partnership’s Young Entrepreneur’s Advisory Board. James is an alumnus of Swarthmore College with a B.A. in Political Science and Environmental Studies. I sat down with James to ask him a few questions last week for our new series, Faces & Visions of the Food Movement.

JD: What issues have you been focused on?

JJP: A real grab bag, I kind of come from a public finance, retail development space. I help people become engaged in sustainable food and food access from a business or economic development perspective. To drill down specifically, grocery retail, the development of stores, working with store owners to make them better entrepreneurs; and you know, it’s interesting because people hear about the corner store work, and corner store conversions, cracking them open, doing gut rehabs, but it’s really the larger systems work that I enjoy most. Connecting that entrepreneur to the larger movement and showing them what they can do to make a difference.

I traveled with Juan Carlos Romano, a bodega owner I work with in Philly, to Terra Madre a few years ago and showed him all the people from around the world involved in this work, then watched him connect the dots. I think that connector role, as much as the individual work I do, is exciting. Can I get into an entrepreneurs head and get them to think about how selling healthier food or operating a sustainable business is a way to differentiate yourself in the marketplace? And that you’re getting not just that differentiating factor, you’re becoming a better entrepreneur, and making a real difference.

I work with city agencies, like economic development, public health, and urban planning, around designing programs for grocery development. I was a manager of the Fresh Food Financing program in Philadelphia and had been working with cities like Detroit. In two weeks Detroit will launch its Green Grocer Project, which is a grocery expansion and attraction program to help with operations, financing and giving them a direct liaison housed in the City for anything they need. To create a space in the city for a grocer at any level to get involved and give them a contact for anything they need: bookkeeping, accounting, store design, product handling, you name it.… the Mayor will make an announcement on May 17th and it’ll be like watching my baby be born.

So yeah, I’m in that space within the larger food access movement. But I think because I’ve been doing this for a little while now I see where the pieces connect. Local grocers selling local producers products and creating those networks and getting those networks to scale and getting that local web connected to other local webs and connecting it all.

JD: What inspires you to do this work?

JJP: Honestly it’s problem solving. It’s seeing an issue and whether it’s a specific one – a grocer can’t sell healthy products, or a larger one – a city can’t attract a grocer to a corridor, then cracking it open and creating interesting, innovative and efficient solutions. That’s really what drives me. And, that food is connective and universal and a great way to bring communities together. It’s a great rubric to look at urban spaces; I love cities, it’s something that always moves me and watching the food culture in that city gives you a sense of that city’s culture and when you can affect positive change in that city, that’s a great to way to impact positive movement and growth.

JD: What’s your overall vision?

JJP: Ultimately, to create networks of entrepreneurs who utilize food and other resources to help communities in general become more dynamic; and offering wealth creation opportunities to folks who haven’t had them to create food-based enterprises. To create livable, viable communities people can enjoy. To make “live, work, and play” not just a cliché of the development world, but to create viable spaces for folks who want to be able to have a nice life despite their socio-economic station, or simply because they live in the middle of a “concrete jungle”. They should have the same amenities as anyone. And, if you can make those people the agents of change through social enterprise … that’s good.

Re-entry is big for me. You have African Americans and Latinos, former prisoners, coming back into their communities and we don’t have a system where restitution and rehabilitation are emphasized. There are few ways for ex-offenders to get back into mainstream society and have opportunities for growth. Food-based enterprises are a great opportunity to bring at risk youth and ex-offenders back into society in a positive and fruitful way.

I think we miss opportunities to connect food advocacy and other fields of interest because the nature of the work (and the method of funding) breeds specialization rather than integration.

Food and the environment. Food and entrepreneurship. Food and community. Food and public spaces. These things make sense to me.

JD: Who’s in your community?

JJP: My community’s global. I know that sounds trite. After Terra Madre, I went to Rome and I met these Afghan proprietors of a hookah shop. It was maybe two a.m. and I talked with them about mixed martial arts and where to get great tomatoes and what areas in Italy have the best meats. I told them about how I just stayed next to a row of pig farms in Fossano up in the north. I think about them and how the next time I go to Rome, I will seek them out and see how I can connect them to my work more explicitly. They are a part of my community.

A guy who’s come out of prison, he was trained in gardening and horticulture in the prison and is trying to figure out a way to make a living doing that.

The guy who’s a local grocer who can’t figure out how to do his books.

The people I get to work with … they are my community. It’s about bringing together people who aren’t a part of this work into it. People who don’t or haven’t been a part of the conversation need to get into it.

For me, that’s everybody.

JD: What are your commitments?

JJP: My commitments are to my clients. I don’t do a great job of sticking to my scopes of work. You spend all this time with a client figuring out what your responsibilities are for a project, but the manager in me never left. I get much more invested than I should according to the contracts I set up. Commitment to me for a project is really soups to nuts, even if my part is supposed to be just 10 percent, clients know I’ll do whatever I can to see it through to the finish line.

Whether in my work, family life, and with friends I try to be a straight shooter and be honest about things.

The way we fund food-based initiatives creates unreasonable expectations for projects, particularly if they are profit-based. You create outcomes for grants that make no sense within the lifecycle of business. I don’t know one initiative in any field of interest that has been able to create sustainable, game-changing outcomes within 12 months. Even a venture capital or private equity firm, where a project has to exhibit crazy 500 percent, super explosive ROI to be deemed successful, recognizes the need to have a three-to seven-year window to execute the project. But in the food movement, we overpromise and underfund, then get mad when we don’t change the world after a year.

I try to see it through with the actors I’m working with. If I’m working with a grocer, I try to think like that grocer and what will motivate him to change their business model, because he has to own what he’s doing. If it’s changing the entire product mix, he has to be involved. I can’t make you want it, but my commitment is to be the best advocate and provide the best support I can give to show that grocer she has what it takes to pull it off.

If I give a business owner reasons to make the quantum leap, great. If it matches with a grant narrative, all the better. If it doesn’t, c’est la vie. It’s seeing a project through to its most logical and effective ending. I trust my gut enough to know when you look at a project and know how it should end, to make sure I’m committed to making that happen.

JD: What are your goals?

JJP: My goals are one, to finish what I start. I see so many connections and try to do too many projects at one time. It’s a personal crusade that Urbane Development succeeds. I haven’t don’t have a full measurement of what it would mean to succeed yet. But, my goal is to watch some sort of fundamental system change occur, where all pieces of the puzzle slowly fit together.

Schools, gardens, grocery stores, neighborhood businesses… all working in tandem to imbue concepts of healthy and active living, while offering opportunities for entrepreneurship and life-skills training, and providing safe spaces and routes within neighborhoods. That’s already happening in some places, but usually this work happens in disjointed pieces instead of collaboratively. Particularly when business is involved.

I absolutely want to create technologies that allow these neighborhood-level connections to occur faster and more efficiently. Cell phones are the predominate method of communication for youth, we need to be thinking about ways to take advantage of this delivery system to market the things we think are important for them to know and share with others.

Finding ways to create wealth for those with limited access to capital and to those networks. And utilize my expertise to give them ways to do that. Unless we decide we want to live in a more communal-based economic system, we need to look at the world that way a little more than we do.

Give people opportunities to create. There’s a great book called Bad Money, by Kevin Phillips, that talks about the eminent decline of the U.S. as a economic superpower due in large part to our reliance on financial services as the predominate method of wealth creation. We need to start making things again in this country! Food is a great way to create, to produce.

We are missing the boat with innovative food projects. Create the idea of localized systems that connect to each other to create at a global scale. How can the systems, materials, and resources we create in our food-based enterprises inform and transform projects in other industries or fields of interest?

Investing in communities to create things. Be a part of the creation movement.

JD: What does change look like to you?

JJP: It’s like the Chris Rock joke: when America has a really dumb black President and no one cares that he’s black. In other words, when we live in a society that values and strives for meritocracy. When people who are pigeonholed and stereotyped have the opportunity to do what they want without anyone caring about their backgrounds.

Multiple ways of doing things… allowing for space in all these movements to get to a point where people are judged by what they do and what they create not so much who they are. It goes both ways, people in power, people who are marginalized. Having candid conversations about solving problems. Getting down to the issues and finding strong creative solutions to our problems and cutting out the white noise that distracts from that. Taking personal stock in your space and mode of thinking and solving problems and looking inwards. Change is very personal. How can I be a better x? Any x.

Thinking about how we affect personal actions, how we make an impact. People being looked at as individuals and what they bring to the table and seeing what they bring however incremental.

JD: Regarding the practicalities of enacting change, what planning is involved? What kind of outreach?

JJP: What we’re doing right now [the interview]. Like Heather Wooten telling me to be more vocal. Me speaking my mind. Social media is very powerful. I don’t know how people think of me, but that perception has got nothing to do with me personally. Most people know me from my work or my public persona — whatever the hell that means. Sometimes I don’t recognize how much perception of me colors people’s actions towards me. Engagement is very personal when it comes to change. I see my nieces and nephews behaving in ways I don’t like, so talking with them about their actions and behavior and how they are not operating in a vacuum.

The outreach is to public officials. We give them this mandate to speak for us. Then we abdicate it by not talking to them.

If you’ve talked to people on the Hill, the people who really run this country, operationally at least, they are 25-35 years old. They are writing the bills, they are trying to figure out what’s going on, but there are so many voices in the gallery that we end up at the lowest common denominator, and that doesn’t make sense.

In my mind, the art of the sale is something that’s missing from the repertoire of the average change agent. On some level you have to be a Viking about it. No fear. When you’re selling change to a constituency that fears it, you can’t be hesitant or apologetic. But you have to be knowledgeable about what motivates that constituency and what aspect of the change are beneficial to them. There’s a great concept in sales that is germane to change work: the sale is never done until you lose. With change, there’s always an up-sale.

The next bodega boot camp I do, I’m attacking it straight Tony Robbins style. We’re going to create a dynamic sales force for change.

As a practitioner, if we can prove things out in the real world, that is powerful. This is our economy. A movement where we’re talking to entrepreneurs and small businesses about their power is not really happening right now. Telling them they have a lot more dynamism than they think.

It’s a continuum from individual to collective actions. Like a flash mob, all of a sudden a cacophony of connections. Give people an opportunity to see the connections.

JD: What projects are affiliated with yours?

JJP: The Healthy Corner Store Network is a really awesome group of advocates across the country trying to work with small stores in whatever ways possible. Social marketing, full store conversions, helping entrepreneurs be better, connecting to larger food systems work.

The Green Grocer Project in Detroit. I have to give a shout out to DEGC and the City of Detroit. They are doing awesome things around grocery stores and local entrepreneurship and local food issues. Seeing food retail as a means to economic change. As an attractive business opportunity, improving the quality of life in Detroit, which makes it much more attractive to people with options. Good grocery options attracts the types of folks who can build up their tax base will make spaces better to live in.

Fresh Foods Initiative – Small Grocers Program in Newark, NJ. BCDC, the economic development arm of the City sponsors a comprehensive food retail economic development strategy: a farmers market, a supermarket, and small grocers program. This is an example of a city and its economic development agency providing opportunities for capital and technical assistance resources to the grocery community in Newark.

The Healthy Urban Food Enterprise Development program by the USDA that’s being administered through the Wallace Center and I review those enterprise grants and I whole-heartedly believe food creation as a way to create change.

LISC, Local Initiative Support Corporation, a national community development firm. I work with LISC Philadelphia. They are doing a commercial corridor engagement program supporting community development corporations to create vital commercial corridors for neighborhoods. I work with local grocers to stabilize those corridors as community anchors.

Philadelphia Development Partnership. I am an adviser for their Young Entrepreneurship Program.

Writer’s Bloc. A screenwriting collective I’ve been part of for a few years. My buddy Jason is the worker in the group. He just pumps scripts out. I’ve been milking my magnum opus for years. It’s about astrology, mathematics, and snuggle buddies.

JD: What projects have you got your eye on or are you impressed by?

JJP: I’m super curious to hear what Slow Food USA will do next. They just hired a cool director of national programs with a background in immigrant rights. I think they are an important organization to connect people with affluence and means of wealth with social justice issues and they are a connector for these issues with a strong base of support.

The city of Seattle. Folks there are doing interesting work with planning. Branden Born, an urban planning professor who is kicking ass. It’s a place where many players are putting together a neat package of projects that will create a better food system in Seattle.

So many interesting enterprise projects are out there. There are so many people around the country doing awesome work. Hopefully the Wallace Center, HUFED program will show people how many innovative ideas are out there.

The slow money stuff is interesting to me, not so much about food aspect but the idea of local stock exchanges, local equity funds, and other localized, community-derived financing mechanisms for small business projects. Those are opportunities for folks to be creative and create better communities with their own wealth.

I have to give a shout out to Philly and the Mural Arts project. It used to be if you saw a mural on a building you knew it wasn’t selling, but they’ve created a neat canvas using dilapidated buildings to give Philly a visual voice. They engage youth in a positive way. Teens 4 Good, a youth-based urban ag project out of Philly is super dynamic and I’d bet those kids start a land-use revolution in Philly.

Steve Warshawer at La Montanita Co-Op in New Mexico. That guy is a force of nature. You want to figure out ways to deal with rural food access issues, just talk to him for 10 minutes.

I just read an article about Heather Hilleren in Inc. Magazine about her website Local Dirt. I love projects that use technology to increase scale for small businesses. Really want to see how this and businesses like this help small producers capture additional markets.

JD: Where do you see the state of agriculture/food policy in the next five to 10 years? Is real policy change a real possibility?

JJP: The change I described in the earlier question, no. The change in the incremental fashion were used to? Sure. For instance, the national Fresh Food Financing Initiative bill will find its way through. It’s a neat program, but it could be so much more. If we had the political will we’d be talking about why there’s a food access problem in this country — lack of wealth in urban/rural communities and the cost of specialty crops.

The Farm Bill is the same way, specialty crops, the products that make us healthy don’t get subsidized. Subsidizing corn isn’t going to work. Kind of runs counter to all the money we’re spending on public health initiatives. Let’s move on that.

Real policy change is getting agencies to talk to each other. To this administration’s credit that’s happening more.

The best things about America to me come out of the marketplace. How amazing of a time do we live in right now. At this moment, entrepreneurs can create businesses and produce products with high social value and still make a living. When policy can encourage that, it’s a blessing.

I don’t think in the next five years there is the courage or the focus or the trajectory where folks are thinking of that stuff, big or small.

Whenever the term “innovation” is used, it’s an excuse to fund something at a small scale. Why aren’t we funding those things, taking those risks at a large scale? Instead everything has to be piloted and done at this baby scale. By the time we get to critical mass, it’s too late because policy moves too slow.

Farm to School is a great example. Instead of farm to school advocates pouncing on the food safety issue in schools and selling their work and their producers as an alternative to conventional food service distribution methods, we allowed that option to be framed as a quality control nightmare. Clearly the system in place is failing, yet the voices of an alternative are never heard beyond the choir. The moral imperative is clear, but we need to make the economic and logistical justification in much more aggressive ways. There are so many lessons, products, and resources being creating within local, sustainable value chains. We need to market these solutions as innovative market opportunities as well as promoting health, wellness, and sustainable production for our kids. That still makes me mad, it was such an opportunity. The next time we have an e-coli or salmonella outbreak, we need to ready to pounce with farm to school/institution as a cogent alternative.

Anything that will stimulate products we can move in the global economy and finding solutions to the political and social challenges that ail us, why aren’t we incubating that? If policy can help, great, but if not, why not get out the way? Don’t be obstructionist.

I’m not a nihilist. I just think people don’t have the cojones to do what they need to do. Which is get aggressive and take some risks. In politics, in advocacy. Hopefully the marketplace can take care of some of that.

JD: What would you want to be your last meal on earth?

JJP: Oh man, last meal, last meal, it would probably have to be the most succulent roast pork sandwich out of John’s Roast Pork in Philly, provolone, thinly sliced slightly melted, broccoli rabe, fried onions, and honestly I’d throw a little sriracha on there for a kick. Washed down with a black velvet, a nice amber cider and an oatmeal stout mix. Bread pudding definitely.

[he pauses, thinking]

Scratch that, my grandmothers’ brown Betty. That’s what I’m eating. If I can’t have it ever again, that’s what I’m eating.

[Editor’s Note: It’s coincidental that we’ve highlighted two people in the retail space in our first two posts of this series. We want to talk to everyone we can, and with timing, etc., we are fortunate to engage in conversations with two men working to connect local producers with local markets at this time. If you know someone you’d like to see featured, please contact Jen Dalton.]

2 thoughts on “Faces & Visions of the Food Movement: James Johnson-Piett

  1. Pingback: Faces of Disco – Britain’s Got Talent – Semi-Final 1 | Reality TV Shows

  2. Love this quote:
    “Food and the environment. Food and entrepreneurship. Food and community. Food and public spaces. These things make sense to me.”

    Great article- very important issues here.