Plowing Ahead: Knoxville Didn't Win Bloomberg Philanthropies' Contest Money. Is the "Food Corridor" Dead?

You may have heard some talk recently from your civic booster friends about the Bloomberg Philanthropies' Mayor's Challenge, a grant competition that invited mayors to submit ideas for improving their cities—305 cities entered, and 20 were chosen as finalists. Knoxville was one of those finalists. Mayor Rogero, in partnership with the Knoxville/Knox County Food Policy Council and the Knox County Health Department, submitted a multi-faceted plan for an "Urban Food Corridor" to increase access to healthy food, reuse abandoned lots, and create local food-industry jobs.

On March 12, the winners of the Bloomberg Mayor's Challenge were announced. The grand prize, and $5 million, went to Providence, R.I., for Mayor Angel Taveras' idea to outfit poor children with monitors to count the number of vocabulary words they hear on a daily basis. The runners-up—Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, and Santa Monica, Calif.—received $1 million each for proposals that largely involved investing in new technology in an effort to improve people's lives.

Knoxville's idea was a bit earthier. The proposal video featured hearty Knoxvillians of varied demographics proclaiming enthusiasm for the food corridor; the plan seemed to be meticulously budgeted and troubleshot, and the goals tapped into the trendy local food movement. The proposal received a lot of popular support on Facebook and other social media. Why didn't Knoxville win?

"I don't know," says Susanna Sutherland, director of the city's Office of Sustainability, who has spent the past three months working on the grant proposal. "We may not have been what the judges for the Bloomberg grant were looking for. The ideas that won were data-focused, while ours was a ‘doing things' kind of grant."

Rather than a "Local Wellbeing Index" like Santa Monica's or an "Open-Source Predictive Analytics Platform" like Chicago's, Knoxville's Food Corridor plan would in effect be place-making—tangible transformation of the physical landscape and character of a neighborhood. The plan calls for modifying existing vacant lots into a network of mini-farms, operated by individuals who earn money by growing fresh produce in East Knoxville, a part of town in which the most available food is convenience store junk.

The USDA recently updated the "Food Access Research Atlas," formerly called the "Food Desert Locater," a feature on the USDA website that allows users to view maps of areas with a food scarcity. The latest data from the USDA designates most of East Knoxville as a "low income, low access" area in which many residents do not own cars, and live more than one mile away from a grocery store with healthy food.

In a Feb. 20 column for the Huffington Post, it seems clear Rogero was hedging her bets and looking ahead to a future in which the Bloomberg money may not be in our pocket: "Regardless of the outcome of the Mayor's Challenge, the work and ideas that have gone into this proposal will not be wasted. Some parts of it could be pursued incrementally, and the Food Corridor concept helps us think about some long-term challenges in new and creative ways."

Indeed, after losing the grant, Rogero issued a press release confirming, "We have already begun discussions with our local partners in this proposal to find other ways to put the program into place."

The proposal called for $1 million. The largest expenses in the proposal budget are a 6-acre pilot farm with full-time staff, a large-scale composting facility, and an education and training program to teach people how to grow and process food to sell. Without the hoped-for funding, these projects are off the table for now.

Eventually, the components of the plan may be funded through several smaller grants. For example, the pilot farm, predicted to cost $350,000, is a more bite-sized amount of money, and a cohesive project a funder might be interested in backing, Sutherland says. The composting program is the most expensive project, at $560,000, and the education program is $86,000.

How did this costly, unprecedented plan for an Urban Food Corridor get off the ground in the first place?

Sutherland says when there was a call for ideas for the Bloomberg grant, it was Stephanie Welch, community development and planning director at the Knox County Health Department and member of the Knoxville/Knox County Food Policy Council who "best articulated the ideas coming from the community."

Welch says she sat in meetings with community members and partners for several years, listening to voices calling for more community gardens, more fresh produce in low-income neighborhoods, and a fix to urban blight. All these ideas translated to widespread interest in a "micro-neighborhood food system."

Specifically, Welch says the ideas began to coalesce during a meeting about community gardening at Tribe One, a community empowerment center for urban youth located in East Knoxville.

During the meeting, which took place in 2010, when Welch was head of the Food Policy Council, community members raised the prospect of people making a living by growing and selling food locally. They spoke about a need for access to land, support from the government, and education on growing food.

"The way things happen in our community is grassroots-up. You could sense that energy," Welch says.

Last summer, filmmaker Carolyn Jo Shields, mostly known for her Christian-themed skits, posted a YouTube video that reiterates the ideas Welch heard raised at the Tribe One meeting. The short film, shot in Knoxville with actors from the faith-based service group Stewards of the Earth, dramatizes two trips to the grocery store and the differences that may exist between East and West Knoxvillians' access to healthy food. The video ends with a call for more "fresh markets" in East Knoxville and the stated goal of "helping local growers make money off their produce."

If nothing else, the attempt at the Bloomberg grant spurred progress toward this goal.

"The conversation was escalated by the prospect of getting money. Now the conversation has started, there is a commitment to doing something, moving the concept forward," Welch says.

Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, Welch's overseer at the health department, has exhibited interest in the local food movement, publicly declaring his support for local businesses and farmers during a Food Day celebration at the New Harvest Farmers' Market in East Knoxville. Though Oct. 24 is National Food Day, last year Burchett declared Oct. 22-26 an entire Food Week.

So if the grassroots movements are supportive, and both mayors are in favor, what else must happen to make the food corridor a reality?

At this moment, Sutherland is working on changing regulations and removing legal barriers to implementing the food corridor, while searching for smaller grants to fund pieces of the plan.

The fact that a food corridor cannot yet be legally implemented in East Knoxville might have been another factor in losing the Bloomberg contest. When the legal barriers are gone, Knoxville will be a more attractive candidate to funders, Sutherland says.

The number-one legal barrier to the food corridor plan is zoning. The target area, East Knoxville, is zoned mostly residential and commercial. Sutherland is trying to change zoning in some core neighborhoods to an urban agricultural zone where people can legally grow crops and raise hens and goats on privately-owned vacant lots.

Sutherland is also working with the city's law department on another step: hammering out lease agreements so people can rent vacant city-owned lots to use as farmland. The lease agreement would allow people to use the property at no cost, or, at most, a $1 fee. The agreement would also contain clauses to prevent the city from being sued.

"We get sued all the time," says Sutherland, adding that taxpayer dollars pay the court costs.

The main task of the city law department is to protect the city from lawsuits. Obviously, from a legal standpoint, the safest thing would be to do nothing. But Sutherland says that runs counter to her other goal, "enabling the individual."

"Lots of people, mostly young, contacted me, and wanted to be part of the urban food corridor," Sutherland says.

Even without funding for composting, education, and the pilot farm, when the legal barriers are gone, some people can start farming the food corridor on their own.

"Especially under this administration, the attitude is not to just say, ‘No.' If there is a good idea, with a lot of community support, we are going to rally behind it—we are going to make it happen," Sutherland says.

There is also the hope that Knoxville's successfully implemented food corridor might enable other cities as well.

According to Sutherland, other cities struggling with solutions to food deserts, blight, and unemployment have toyed with aspects of urban food production. But, the plan's proposal states, "no other entity has managed all components of the food cycle: parcel identification, education and job creation, food processing, distribution, sales, and composting."

"If Knoxville did this, it would be a public service beyond our little borders," Sutherland says. "We can pass this [packet of work, or how-to guide] off to other cities, and become a model. We can take the fear out of it for other cities."