Food sustains with social entrepreneurs

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It was early April and Lyn Harwell was recovering from emergency surgery for an intestinal blockage. While laid up in the hospital for the next two weeks, the Seeds Community Café founder and social entrepreneur had plenty of time to think.

The community café, where anyone can eat in exchange for a monetary donation or an hour of labor, will celebrate its five-year anniversary next week. Since it opened, Seeds has served more than 60,000 healthy, locally sourced meals regardless of ability to pay. According to Harwell, 40 percent of those have been in exchange for service.

Harwell had been spending up to 100 hours a week ensuring the operation ran smoothly, and he will be celebrating the nonprofit’s milestone by passing operations into the hands of its new director, Jennifer Bostick. But Harwell, even in recovery, doesn’t plan to take it easy. He is already building a new network of social enterprises spanning both Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, starting with a new café at the Manitou Art Center, CrEATe, which is expected to open in June.

Plan for dinner

Manitou Springs recently completed Plan Manitou, a document Mayor Nicole Nicoletta called “extremely unique in the nation.” The document deals both with comprehensive master planning and hazard mitigation.

According to Nicoletta, economic development is a theme that runs throughout the plan, and a major component of that is food production and distribution in the city.

“We started with a great inventory about what’s going on with our food production and distribution,” she said. “That’s everything from our seniors and their access to nutritional services to the for-profit farmers we have in town to our community gardens.”

Nicoletta said she helped put together a special committee to research the possibility of a citywide composting system.

“We talk about local food, but it’s not always clear where the municipality or government fits in,” she said, adding Manitou is clarifying those roles.

One component of that planning is Harwell’s replication of his Seeds model, but as a for-profit social enterprise, to the west. His first step is launching his new eatery, CrEATe, which will occupy space currently inhabited by Mabel’s Café in the Manitou Art Center.

“We’ll do soups, salads and sandwiches — healthy food in Manitou,” Harwell said. “We’re going to try and be a good player in the community.”

Harwell said Plan Manitou will take the lead role in how food service and agricultural industries move forward in the city.

“Manitou is somewhat light years ahead of Colorado Springs right now in thinking about how food impacts the community,” he said.

Harwell added that CrEATe will work with local producers, such as the SunMountain Center, which is establishing an 18-acre biodynamic farm in Manitou Springs.

“We’re looking at how we impact Manitou with a sustainable food system, local food production, gardens and food sales tied to its vulnerable populations,” Harwell said.

But feeding the community is only part of the equation. Harwell also wants to teach those vulnerable populations how to fish, so to speak.

“We want to create a public kitchen and a learning kitchen, which will have a 15-week culinary training program for high-risk folks,” he said. “But we’ll also have cooking classes for kids to the aging population on how to cook and affect your health with food.”

Harwell is currently looking for commercial kitchen space, or several commercial kitchens, to accommodate certification programs and public cooking classes. He is also working with UCCS and local doctors to create a preventive food pantry.

“Doctors and nutritionists will prescribe food as medicine,” he said. “Good ol’ preventive health.”

Only one other such food pantry exists in the U.S., Harwell said, and that’s at Boston Medical Center.

Food as medicine has recently become more relevant within the medical community, he added.

“Tulane [University in Louisiana] is the first school teaching doctors about cooking and how to implement food into their practice,” he said.

Tammy Dixon is the new executive chef at Seeds Community Café, which was founded five years ago by Lyn Harwell (second from right).

Laura Ettinger, Harwell’s business partner and fiancée, said details can’t yet be released, but “we’re negotiating with three major entities in Colorado Springs for food classes and we will announce those partnerships in the next couple months.”

Harwell also pointed to Colorado Springs’ own in-process community study, Plan COS, and said a food component should be included in the city’s vision.

“We’ll definitely be creating jobs,” Harwell said. “The social enterprises we’re creating between Manitou and Colorado Springs will create about 100 jobs. With a commercial kitchen, we can take people off the food stamp line and put them in the food production line. We’ll give them a living wage and empower them to be economic contributors.”

And Harwell said the Pikes Peak region already has a leg up on much of the country when it comes to recognizing the impact of social enterprises.

“I think Colorado Springs is already a hub,” Harwell said. “It’s amazing what’s going on in the region. I look at the fourth sector and can’t help but think it’s the future of our economy going forward.”

Do good, make money

The concept of doing good and making money has become more popular recently, both nationally and locally. This year, the Better Business Bureau of Southern Colorado hosted its inaugural social enterprise awards banquet. The bureau is also about to launch a pilot program for a social enterprise designation in Colorado Springs, according to its CEO, Jonathan Liebert. That designation will sit alongside the BBB’s commercial and charitable business accreditations. Because of the concentration of social enterprises in the region, the BBB of Southern Colorado was instrumental in the development of that designation, Liebert said.

“The accreditation has not launched yet,” Liebert said. “But what has launched is a national taskforce responsible for gathering information and data from across the U.S. to determine what is most beneficial to social enterprises.”

Liebert said it’s likely Colorado as a whole could pilot the new social enterprise designation.

“We have wonderful social entrepreneurs in our community,” he said. “And we’re beginning to have conversations with funders in Colorado Springs and Denver who want to invest with these types of businesses. People have been calling me.”

Liebert agreed with Harwell’s assessment that the fourth sector could one day dominate other business models.

“A lot of new businesses are looking at social enterprises because research states Millennials and the average American will buy more from a social enterprise, pay more for the products, and would rather work for one of these companies — and they will take a pay cut to do it.”

Liebert said, considering the region’s push regarding its outdoor recreation business opportunities, social enterprise could be paired with that mission to create a formidable economic driver.

“Think of the companies that provide gear for outdoor recreation: Patagonia, Arc’teryx, Cotopaxi. A lot already fall in the conscious capitalist category. …  We’ve had this conversation with key organizations in town — how do you encourage these companies to start businesses here and how do you attract them here?”

Business acumen aside, Harwell said his vision involving food just seems like the right thing to do, and he has his own research to back it.

Harwell hadn’t had any serious health issues in the past leading up to his emergency surgery, and he had been hooked up to as many as six machines since his release from the hospital.

“But my doctor said I healed quicker than anyone my age,” Harwell said. “I attribute it to healthy food. Food is powerful. It’s not all about food. It’s about the relationships we have too. But food is the connector.”