Cathie Anderson

Sacramento nonprofit plans incubator to nurture food businesses

Residents of the Sacramento region think of themselves as farm-to-fork eaters, but surveys show that only 2 percent of the food grown locally is consumed here. It’s a statistic that Davida Douglas believes she can help to improve if she can get a food business incubator off the ground.

Douglas runs Alchemist Community Development Corp., and her nonprofit organization won a $71,000 grant earlier this month from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to devise a plan for a facility that would not only help residents comply with health regulations and flesh out business strategies but also offer them low-cost access to a commercial kitchen.

A food business incubator, Douglas said, could help small farmers start or expand their output of value-added products, or the foodstuffs they make with the crops they harvest. It could help low-income people realize their entrepreneurial dreams – some already get training in food service from local nonprofits. It could also help people operating under cottage food licenses to take their businesses to the next level.

“If you look at the regulations related to cottage food, the total revenue … is capped at $50,000,” Douglas said. “When you figure out what people’s profit margins are, it would be difficult for somebody to support themselves entirely from that. We’re looking for folks who are ready to scale up.”

Alchemist is teaming up with UC Davis researcher Kristin Kiesel, a faculty member in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, and a variety of stakeholders and community groups to study how a food business incubator can improve job opportunities, increase access to healthy food in neighborhoods where grocery stores are scarce and reduce food waste for small farmers. Any facility would be located in the federal promise zone that cuts across a swath of Sacramento neighborhoods that have faced economic challenges. Proposals that bring jobs to promise zones receive special preference in the federal grant process.

“We are reaching out to farmers market vendors to expand upon their value-added products,” Douglas said. “It could reduce their losses from spoilage and then also connect those farmers with individuals that are starting new businesses or expanding cottage industry businesses, so they can supply them with their produce to incorporate into these different businesses that come out of this. It’s like bringing it around full circle.”

Kiesel said that by fostering collaboration across local distribution channels, Alchemist can help to reduce food waste and ensure the sustainability and profitability of small farmers. The incubator also explores opportunities to increase access to healthy foods for underserved populations, she said, while providing much-needed infrastructure and services that will generate revenue and jobs.

Alchemist already has connections with local growers because it manages a scrip system that allows food-stamp recipients to shop at about a dozen local farmers markets. In neighborhoods where access to fresh produce is limited, the organization also works to get the word out about small ethnic markets that offer such food. They literally walk low-income residents through the door, educate them on shopping healthy within a budget and provide a $10 coupon to sample the market’s nutritious offerings.

Douglas, an avid gardener who has worked for Alchemist since 2008, said she expects to complete a feasibility study and business plan and find potential sites before the grant term ends in 18 months. Founded in 2004, Alchemist is based at 909 12th St. in downtown Sacramento.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee