Now is the Time. Memphis is the Place.

275 Food Project Is Making ‘Farm to Fork’ More Accessible for Memphis

By now, we’ve pretty much got the hang of the importance of eating at locally owned restaurants—how it puts money back into our city’s economy and how it’s generally the tastier choice. But what if we took that mindfulness one step further by asking just how local is our local? Do the locally owned restaurants that we support source their ingredients from local farms as much as possible? What are the obstacles to doing so? According to 275 Food Project, a newly launched nonprofit aimed at closing gaps within our local food economy, we’re missing out on a lot by not asking those questions.

“In Memphis, we spend approximately $364 million a year on produce, proteins, and dairy. That includes money spent by residents and tourists at grocery stores, restaurants, fast food chains as well as the procurement dollars spent by large institutions like hospitals, colleges, and public schools,” said Heather Jamerson, co-Founder of 275 Food Project. “Only about 1% of that money spent stays local. The rest lands in the pockets of food providers and distributors from as far away as California or Mexico. Our goal at 275 Food Project is to grow that 1% spend to 20%.”

Heather Jamerson and Diane Terrell co-founded 275 Food Project to increase the supply of & demand for local food in Memphis, and to also provide access and opportunities for residents of underserved communities.

“Our personal passion is for civic transformation, in general, and the local food economy resides within that,” said Diane. 

They both have extensive backgrounds in the nonprofit community and have become keen evaluators of programs, asking the right questions, and determining the best means to reach the desired results. On top of that, they have years of relationships built from every end of the food economy.

“We’ve heard the stress points that farmers have and the pain points that chefs, restaurateurs, and procurement officers have had,” said Heather. “We had the opportunity to just sit down and map out solutions that would be able to meet the goals of each of those various partners.”

Inside Puck Food Hall on opening night.

275 Food Project has leveraged partnerships to roll out multiple initiatives in quick succession. Here’s what it looks like for them to intervene at every stage of the local food ecosystem:

  • Puck Food Hall: 275 Food Project has partnered with Inconceivable, Inc, a local restaurant management group, to re-launch Memphis’ first food hall, 409 South Main as Puck Food Hall. It serves as an entrepreneurial incubator for early-stage restaurants or food retail owners. All of the vendors at Puck commit to using local, seasonal ingredients. Puck Food Hall opened at the end of May with 10 different food and beverage concepts, including Radical, which is owned by 275 Food Project. 
  • A reliable local food aggregation and distribution network: In November 2018, New South Produce Cooperative of Arkansas was awarded a grant by the 275 Food Project to expand operations into Memphis. They will open the first for-profit, farmer-owned food hub in Memphis.
  • 275 Food @ Harbor Landing: 275 Food has partnered with Memphis River Parks Partnership to open doors to a newly renovated space at Harbor Landing that includes a responsive wholesale market for chefs, retailers, and institutions; cold and dry storage for farmers and food producers; and, a commercial kitchen and events venue to host local food pop-ups. 
  • The Women’s Chef Initiative presented by Chef Kelly English: Chef Kelly English and 275 Food Project will launch a six-month mentorship program to position high achieving women chefs for career advancement and/or ownership. (launching August 2019)
  • Soulsville Container Restaurant: 275 Food Project will open a container restaurant on the corner of College and Walker in Soulsville to promote local farm to fork cuisine that is accessible to everyone. The container will house the Ground Up Initiative (opening August 2019)
  • The Ground Up Initiative presented by Dave and Amanda Krog: A collaboration between the Krogs and 275 Food Project, Ground Up is designed to identify and mentor emerging chefs and food professionals of color to enable a pathway to ownership opportunities.

Applications for the first Ground Up Chef-in-Residence are being accepted now through July 9th. You can read more about that via The Daily Memphian, and apply at 275foodproject.org

I met up with Diane and Heather at Puck Food Hall where they gifted me a beautiful heirloom tomato from their first harvest of the season, and we dove into how all of the pieces of the 275 Food Project puzzle fit together.  

A rendering for the Soulsville container restaurant.

Choose901: After years of working in other industries, how did you land on food? How does improving the local food economy fulfill a personal calling for you? 

Heather: We both really believe in the potential of Memphis. We see it growing and changing and evolving and really have enjoyed for many years being part of that movement. In the food system, though, it has a lot of potential for placemaking, for economic development, for community, and for health impacts. We see food as kind of an intersection of multiple things that we’ve done over time—me in my past work, as well as Diane and her past work. Not just things we’ve done over time, but things that can catalyze the kind of real change that we’re all working toward, food really sits at the nexus of. 

275 Food Project Co-founders Heather Jamerson and Diane Terrell.

Moving to Memphis 12 years ago, I heard a lot about how Memphis is this food town, and it is. You can eat delicious food in Memphis. But what became really startling to me was when we started collecting data at a macro level in terms of the local food economy here, the vast majority of that food that we’re eating whether it’s at barbecue fest, or whether it’s at a pizza place or wherever it is—when we think about local business, that’s where it stops being local. It doesn’t translate into the economic benefits that come to farmers. Our region historically, and even contemporarily in a lot of cases, is a farming community.

Memphis was built around farms and yet somehow, eating at a local restaurant doesn’t mean eating food that was grown within our region. We’re losing a lot of that economic benefit of having this terrific culture in Memphis that says “Support local business. Let’s be local.”  We’re trying to extend that to be not just supporting a locally owned business but a local business that also supports local farmers.

Choose901: What’s the disconnect?

Heather: A lot of the disconnect has been that the agricultural economy has a lot of infrastructure in Memphis but it tends to be around the big commodity crops that are grown in the region. If you want to look at logistics and transport for grains, animal feeds or fibers, we’ve got the strongest in the world. We’re the logistics capital of everything but when you talk about getting a local vegetable or a local protein just into Memphis, that infrastructure is not the same.

It’s a food system gap that we recognized was really important if we want to begin asking our chefs, asking our catering companies, “Hey, do you buy from local farms?” Even if they want to, they might not be able to because that logistics system or that infrastructure has not historically been in place. Part of why we exist is to make sure that we’ve got trucks going out to the farm. We’ve got a warehouse in Memphis where that food could come in and go to a restaurant or a catering company or a grocery store.  

Diane: And then by extension, and this gets to some of our personal passion—once it’s in Memphis, we want to make sure that it’s getting into the neighborhoods where we work. It’s not enough to ensure that chefs, grocers, and retailers have access. We know that there’s a little extra work that has to go into making sure that people in Soulsville or Binghampton or Orange Mound have direct and easy access to that food and to the opportunities.  

When people talk about food access they typically mean the availability of locally sourced foods but what we’ve been focused on right from the beginning is that, but also access to the opportunities that a strong local food economy provides, whether it’s to chefs of color, food entrepreneurs of color, or women. The food industry is a thriving business and people of color and women are often shut out of the higher wage quality positions within that. 

Choose901: What did you learn in your previous roles that prepared you to launch such a robust response to these issues? 

Heather: Everything and nothing. (Laughs) It’s really important for us to reiterate that we’re not doing all of the work. We set up our organization so that we can be part of and support the ecosystem around food that already exists. We see our purpose as being to intervene to close gaps where they exist but really to support and catalyze work that’s already being done.

Diane: I think life prepares you for this as well, your passion for something. If you have the ability to see from where you sit to the outcomes that you want to create and then be able to connect the dots between them, then you’re on the road to success. 

Heather: [When I was at Pyramid Peak] My portfolio included clients involved in social impact investing. I didn’t know what that meant before I started working at the foundation. Didn’t know really what social entrepreneurship was. I had a chance to go to a number of conferences and met with a lot of global leaders and thinkers on that topic, in terms of how do we use capital in ways that can be catalytic, and not necessarily always be grants. It sometimes could be microloans, it can sometimes be blended forms of capital. Food has the opportunity to generate revenues. Unlike nonprofit programs that don’t have that potential, it is a market based good that can be bought and sold so well. The way we bring that into the work we do is around ‘What is the right business model, the right type of investment, or what’s the right type of donor that could come to the table and do the work with us as partners with us?’


Choose901: How does Radical at Puck Food Hall fit into the equation? Is that a recipient of the 275 Food Fellowship?

Diane: There are a couple of reasons why we thought to launch Radical. One is that we realized we needed a vehicle to showcase the produce and proteins, the meats and the dairy that we were bringing into Memphis. We realized that there wasn’t a retail outlet that was truly farm-to-fork, so we wanted to make sure that there was one so that we had something to point to as we did this work.

Second, we wanted a place to eat. It has all the salads, all the fresh produce that I crave every day. But you’re absolutely right, we have the 275 Food Fellowship program and that exists to create a pipeline of food entrepreneurs of color and women to push through the food economy of Memphis.  The way that that program is structured is that we create opportunities for those Fellows, but we also identify additional opportunities that exist out in the food economy. Radical became the first food enterprise that was set to receive a Food Fellow, and Yolanda Manning (general manager of Radical) is our first 275 Food Fellow. 

Heather: A lot of people asked us from day one, ‘How much restaurant experience do you have?’ The answer for both of us is very little. Maybe a service job back in college, but that’s about it. What this has enabled us to do is, we work there. So we know what it’s like to wash lettuces, what it’s like to plan menus. We know what it’s like to source from our local farms. We know what it’s like to figure out what to do with food waste. 

Choose901: You know what it’s like to be slammed during South Main Trolley Night.  

Heather: When we sold out, which was absolutely fabulous! And we know what it’s like, too, to have to make very deliberate choices that may not be great for our bottom line right now, but we believe will be better for Memphis long-term.

We really strive to be sure that our farms are featured and then all those farmers are getting a fair price for the food that they’re sending our way. It’s almost like a test kitchen. It’s like testing something that is harder to do than even opening a restaurant in Memphis, which is already hard. We’re getting the experience, as co-founders of 275 Food and as owners of Radical, of being in the kitchen and understanding what it’s like for Food Fellows that’ll come through our program. We’ll be learning those exact same skills.  

Choose901: What can we do to support your work and be more mindful of our impact on the local food economy?

Diane: As a society, we are definitely becoming more mindful in a lot of respects. Issues of equity and social justice are now commonplace in the news, in our dinner table conversations. We’re thinking about our mental, physical, and emotional health. These are conversations we’re currently having and things that we’re currently thinking about. In some cases, it really is just a matter of extending it to the food we eat.

As in the case of Choose901, all the components, all the makings of that mindful community are already there. We’re just trying to raise awareness of the place local food has in that.

It also makes a difference how easy it is to access these things. It’s one thing to want to eat local, but if it’s just too hard and too expensive, it doesn’t matter how mindful you are. We’re here to try to make it more available and more affordable. 

Heather: We hope that we’re building a movement, and a movement doesn’t happen if everybody is not involved in some way. We’re reaching a point in our work where we want to communicate how people can be involved in this movement. It starts with that mindfulness that you talk about, extending it to food. Then it moves to eating local whenever possible, supporting our farmers. We have a whole event strategy that we’ll be rolling out at the end of the summer. Showing up will be an important way people can be involved.  

Learn more about what’s unfolding at 275foodproject.org, and follow Radical on Facebook and Instagram.

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