Ellen Macht on the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative

CEO chats about developing the first cooperative business, Atlanta Lettuce Works
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Sarah McKinley

Last week, The Democracy Collaborative's Stephanie Geller had the opportunity to chat with Ellen Macht, President and CEO of the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative, about an exciting new project launched by The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta to bring quality jobs, assets, and sustainable economic growth to Atlanta’s most marginalized neighborhoods. 

Macht is spearheading the development of Atlanta’s first, large-scale lettuce grower and processor, Atlanta Lettuce Works.  What’s especially innovative about this enterprise is that it is being designed as a worker-owned cooperative in a neighborhood where more than a third of all residents live below the poverty line.

Can you talk about the history of the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative?

I was hired by the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta in May 2011 to work with The Democracy Collaborative on a feasibility study to assess whether a model that used anchor procurement to help create environmentally friendly, worker-owned cooperatives made sense for metro Atlanta.  Over the course of about 6 months, we interviewed 75 community leaders including representatives from area anchor institutions and business leaders, and concluded that this model was feasible for Atlanta.

By early 2012, we had raised enough money to take the project to the next stage—to start looking at business ideas and figure out the right one to start with.  From our interviews, we learned that most anchor institutions, on both the hospital and education side, had sustainability goals.  Emory University, for example, aims to purchase 75 percent of its food locally by 2015.  We also learned that less than 1/10 of 1 percent of the lettuce consumed in Georgia is supplied by Georgia farmers, and about 90 percent is actually trucked in over thousands of miles from California and Arizona.  So, by the time it gets here, it’s already a week old and barely lasts another week.

Recognizing the anchors had a demand for locally produced lettuce and a real interest in improving their sustainability, the next step was to assess whether we could open a lettuce growing, for-profit cooperative and make it work.  We worked with a group of 4 business students on this feasibility study and the answer was yes!  We not only would be able to produce 3.5 million pounds of lettuce each year but also create about 45 new jobs—jobs that would be new, not taken away from others in the state.  We will sell to the anchors and have found interest from the retail grocery stores that also are looking for fresh lettuce for their customers.

Where are you now in the development process?

We have gotten commitments from several universities including Emory, as well as the food service management companies and produce distribution companies that serve area anchors, to purchase our lettuce.  Right now, we’re working on two main fronts—one, on securing a long-term ground lease on a 7-acre parcel that will house our greenhouses, and two, on figuring out the best legal structure for the business to enable profit-sharing among the employees.  We hope to be up and running and have our first crop of lettuce by fall of 2014 at the latest.

What has been the City of Atlanta’s role in this project?

As part of the assessment process, we interviewed city council members and key staff in the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, and got their buy-in.  We’ve also been in regular contact with the City’s economic development agency and plan to meet with the mayor.  The whole concept of creating jobs, and especially those in manufacturing—and we see lettuce production as a form of manufacturing—is such a positive here.  And what’s unique about this project is that we’re not taking jobs away from other areas of Georgia; we’re creating all new jobs.  We also think that there is potential for Atlanta Lettuce Works to serve public institutions such as schools.  The concept has appeal from several levels.  We will finally have a source of local lettuce, grown in urban Atlanta.  From an environmental standpoint, we’re reducing emissions by not having to truck in lettuce from out-of-state, using less water than in-soil farming, and re-using a property that has been vacant for many years.

How have the residents in the target neighborhood been involved in the project?

Because we’re far from being operational, we have only involved residents on a minimal basis so far.  We want to figure out the basics such as how people will get hired and what the benefits will be—all the aspects the residents are interested in—so we won’t raise false hopes. 

We definitely want the residents to be part of the process.  One step we’re taking to introduce the residents to us and show that we want to be part of the community is that we’re participating this May in a neighborhood charrette, which was initiated by the EPA so that residents can share their ideas for the community.  We’re also working closely with two organizations that have been working in the neighborhood for years and have good relationships with its residents, The Center For Working Families and The Annie E. Casey Foundation. 

What key challenges have you encountered as you’ve worked to establish the enterprise?

Our biggest challenge by far has been raising capital.  To date, we have been funded 100 percent by foundations, including smaller, family-run ones.  We hope to be able to raise funds from a much wider range of sources including government, the banking community, foundations, and impact investors.

What has been interesting is that it has not been challenging to get the anchors to sign on.  There is such a huge demand for buying local products.  Having access to lettuce with a longer shelf life is a no-brainer for them.

What are your key concerns moving forward?

Finding capital to support this is always the most difficult part, so that’s clearly a top concern.  I also want to ensure that we can make this work in a way that is most beneficial to the community.

Does the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative have plans to develop other cooperatives?

Yes!  We’re actually working on a feasibility study for a mattress recycling cooperative.  Now, most mattresses end up in landfills, and because they’re so big and can’t be compacted down well, this is a terrible use of landfill facilities.  There are many beds in the region—Hotels, motels, university dorms, consumers, etc.—and there is no major enterprise involved in mattress recycling in Atlanta, so this could be a viable new business.

What advice would you offer to those in other cities that are also interested in replicating a Wealth Building Initiative?

As with any start-up business, you first must determine your demand.  If you don’t have a big enough market, you won’t be able to succeed even if anchor institutions are interested.  From an organizational standpoint, it’s also important to recognize that the larger any group gets, the harder it is to make key decisions.  I recommend having a small core of people responsible for moving the project forward, and this group needs to include strong business people.  You’re aiming to create a successful enterprise, so you need to involve people with the right skill set.