Ten years ago, when Judy Wicks learned the horrors of industrialized pig farming, she took pork off the menu at her famed White Dog Cafe in Philadelphiauntil she could find a farmer who raised pigs humanely.
“I realized you can’t have one sustainable, locally owned business, there must be a sustainable business system,” Wicks told a crowd of chefs, farmers, professors and citizens in Raleigh last week.
Wicks has spent the last 25 years helping to build those systems by fighting for her values, figuring out how to keep business local and sustainable, and then simply doing what needed to be done.
She helped build Philadelphia’s local food economy by investing 20 percent of the profits from her restaurant into White Dog Community Enterprises, a nonprofit dedicated to building a local food system and living economy in the Philadelphia region, which connects hundreds of restaurants with local farmers. Wicks’ earnings helped establish a pig farmers assistance program and the Fair Food Farmstand, now open year-round at the Reading Terminal Market downtown. Today the nonprofit is working to develop a distribution system that will deliver local food to area hospitals, among other projects.
In 2001, after identifying other key sectors that make up a living local economyenergy, shelter, clothing, investment, media, arts and cultureshe created the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) to strengthen networks of locally owned businesses that embrace the “triple bottom line” conceptthat businesses can be profitable while fostering social and environmental awareness.
“I see business as a series of economic exchangesrewarding interactions with farmers who grow fruit and vegetables, animals that provide milk and meat, bakers who create delicious bread, the Zapatistas who grow my coffee beans, the list goes on,” Wicks said. “Business is about building relationships with people and with nature, the money is just a tool. My business is my way of expressing my love of life.”
She visited the Triangle last week to deliver the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) 2008 Sustainable Agriculture Lecture: “Local Living Economies: Green, Fair and Fun.” She shared her vision for a new business paradigm: one that fosters small, local and sustainable businesses that connect us to the environment and each other, bringing us more security and more joy.
At a time when it’s clear that bigger is not always better, her message offers hope, especially because it is grounded in experience. Wicks has made her vision a reality, first in Philadelphia, then later through BALLE, which supports 55 networks and 1,600 locally owned businesses across Canada and the United States.
Wicks’ accomplishments are impressive. Named one of Inc. magazine’s 25 favorite entrepreneurs, she has received numerous awards, including the James Beard Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2005 and the International Association for Culinary Professionals’ Humanitarian Award in 2008.
She opened the White Dog Cafe in 1983 as a coffee shop on the ground floor of the two-story brownstone where she still lives. Dishes were washed in the corner sink, and customers walked upstairs to use the rest room, waving to her two daughters. Today, the full-service restaurant seats 200 and, together with the Black Cat gift store, it forms White Dog Enterprises, Inc., which grosses $5 million annually.
Through her international sister restaurant project “Table for Six Billion, Please!,” she has organized trips to Nicaragua, Cuba, Mexico, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Vietnam, Israel and Palestine to help people understand the effects of U.S. foreign policy. Wicks also started the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia (SBN) and is the president of White Dog Community Enterprises.
When asked before her speech to define a living local economy, Wicks emphasized the word living.
“It’s an economy that supports healthy natural life and vibrant community life,” she said. “The basic idea is to have local ownership, to give economic control back to local communities, and to build local self-reliance by producing our basic needs locally, instead of relying on corporations.”
She warned the audience that corporations can divorce us from our land and communities, making it easy to ignore the effects of their actions on nature and people. As an example she pointed to Haiti, a country that was once self-reliant, but is now starving as a result of U.S. farm policies that subsidized large corporations that undercut local rice farmers’ ability to compete in the Haitian economy. She also noted there is much to gain by building local economies: increased freedom and self-reliance as well as stronger relationships with the people in our community.
“Creating a local food system is the best way to start, because we buy food every day,” she said.
CEFS Director Nancy Creamer believes North Carolina is in a prime position to build a local food economy. We have farms located near metropolitan areas, which makes it easy to connect products with people. Other agricultural states, such as Iowa, are envious because we have a diversity of climates and soil types that can produce 80 different agricultural commodities, including food, animals, vegetables, fruits, fiber and trees. We also have a strong community of local farmers.
CEFS is pulling people together from across the state to create an action plan for building a North Carolina-based food economy, to be presented at a statewide summit in March. In the meantime, CEFS research shows that if every North Carolinian spent 25 cents a day on local food, we would add $790 million to the state’s economy. That money would stay in North Carolina, creating jobs and sparking new business development to help us meet this demand.
A local food economy saves green space, decreases the use of fossil fuels, increases access to nutritious food and strengthens food security.
An added benefit, Wicks says, is that local economies make people happier.
“People get a sense of satisfaction from rebuilding their communities and reconnecting with people and the environment. It brings them joy. It’s amazing how fast it happens,” she said.