In a city like San Francisco where there is a restaurant for every 376 people, it’s almost impossible to have a bad meal. From the flurry of new arrivals on the restaurant scene to the dizzying array of Michelin starred eateries like French Laundry, it’s easy to forget about our local entrepreneurs who are financially excluded from accessing the resources they need to launch and grow their food businesses.
Enter La Cocina, a groundbreaking business incubator designed to reduce the obstacles that prevent low-income food entrepreneurs from creating successful and sustainable businesses. La Cocina focuses primarily on women from minority communities, and has been a trustee on Kiva since 2012. Since then, Kiva and La Cocina have partnered to support entrepreneurs such as Gabriela and Guadalupe through 0% interest loans of up to $10,000, enabling them to grow their businesses and become economically self-sufficient.
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend La Cocina's 6th Annual Food and Entrepreneurship Conference. As an untiring advocate for the local food system, I was invigorated by the conversations I had with folks from all corners of the diverse food ecosystem. Whether it was contemplating fair labor practices amidst a backdrop of rising cost of living in San Francisco or pondering the role of food as a tool for breaking down cultural and economic barriers, the conversations I had throughout the day with entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, non-profits and policy makers made me wonder how the local food economy can become more inclusive for producers and consumers alike.
In addition, I also had the honor of speaking about Kiva on a panel called "Funding Food Businesses”. While many of the food entrepreneurs in the audience were concerned with the strength of their FICO scores, business balance sheets and collateral, I was happy to explain Kiva’s social underwriting model which employs social data to assess a borrower’s creditworthiness and manage risk. This means that we ask borrowers to recruit a number of their friends, family and network to lend to them in order to demonstrate their trustworthiness and entrepreneurial spirit. No FICO score? 0% interest rates? 98% repayment rate in San Francisco? I could see it on their faces- it was almost too good to be true!
The Mexican-American labor leader César Chávez once said: “If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart.” As something that is so intimate to all of us, food transcends borders, beliefs and cultural barriers to bring communities together. Being surrounded by food entrepreneurs and organizations who are working to create a vibrant and inclusive food ecosystem has prompted me to discover ways in which the food choices I make every day can help locally owned food businesses thrive. It has been almost 3 months since I started my Kiva fellowship, but it has been a delicious journey, and I am incredibly grateful to be a part of a movement to empower local food entrepreneurs in building sustainable food communities.