Local Food Systems and Kitchen Incubators

Local food systems development has been a hot topic in community development circles for some time now.  These efforts typically use agriculture and food development as tools to advance community economic development and to improve community health outcomes.   They may include programs that develop farmer’s markets, provide local food at area schools and hospitals, or create local capacities for value-added agriculture.  Many such efforts also revolve around the development of kitchen incubators or commercial kitchens, where entrepreneurs can produce food products at scale, and learn the ins and outs of business development.  An excellent new compendium, U.S. Kitchen Incubators: An Industry Update, provides an in-depth look at what’s happening in this sector.

This is the third such study, with previous releases in 2013 and 2016.  Today, 600 such facilities are operating around the US, and 180 locations participated in this survey.  Most sites are very small, with 69% of surveyed locations operating with less than 5,000 square feet of space. They also operate on tight budgets—half of spaces have budgets of $500,000 or less.  They offer a mix of services, such as storage space, classes and workshops, food production spaces, and help with licensing and certifications.

The report describes an industry in what we might call the awkward teenage years.  It has grown in numbers and in the range of activities under way, but it has not yet developed a systematic set of programs, metrics, or “best practices.”   Facility and program managers would like to see better support systems, such as consulting and mentoring, and, as always, program funding, especially working capital, remains scarce.  The industry is doing a good job of addressing these growing pains, and continued growth is expected.  That’s a good thing—as these facilities are an important cog in building more prosperous—and healthier—communities.