The People’s Plate 

On food and community: When you buy a piece of that delicious local pie, you invest in a slice of the economic pie, too.

click to enlarge back25_pie.jpg

USA Today proclaimed Church Hill one of 10 up-and-coming neighborhoods in the country last month, citing its food scene. A few months earlier, chefs from the same area took home five Elby Awards for outstanding culinary efforts. In March, Style Weekly's food writers named Church Hill restaurant Dutch & Co. as the 2014 Restaurant of the Year.

The accolades don't come without some division in the neighborhood's bubbling food scene. Recall the Captain Buzzy's Beanery brouhaha over its failed bid for an alcohol license. And when Urban Farmhouse opened a Church Hill location, online critics called it a poor remedy for a pernicious food desert.

But this mix of praise and criticism reflects a deeper issue: evolving attitudes toward food and community. Take the go-local movement, which is a heady contradiction. It blends altruistic feelings with self-interest. Vote with your dollar, as the slogan goes, and claim a stake in your neighborhood's future. When you buy a piece of that delicious local pie, you invest in a slice of the economic pie too. You fill up on calories — and equity.

Consider Proper Pie, a neighborhood favorite. A month before opening, the owners requested help with major purchases, such as equipment and ingredients. They took to Kickstarter, an online fundraising service. The payoff for donations? "Undying gratitude." Larger donations were rewarded with small gifts. Overall, you could feel like a shareholder. You'd increased the value of Church Hill by creating a worthwhile destination.

While you may have felt like a shareholder, technically you were just generous. Nothing on paper separated you from a mere customer. Still, you were more than a customer, especially if you paid for a fresh pie after donating the raw materials. Without you, the "delicious savory-style pie" wouldn't exist.

Such is the logic of crowd funding.

It works like this: Campaign organizers pitch a project to their network and set a financial goal. The crucial difference between the two most popular platforms, Kickstarter and Indiegogo, is that the former is an all-or-nothing game. Kickstarter disburses no funds if the deadline passes without reaching the funding goal. The two platforms share a sliding scale system. Gifts or special access are exchanged for certain donation amounts.

What happens if the campaign pulls in more money than requested? Kickstarter says this: "Most of the time what seems like 'extra' money isn't extra at all." It all goes to the beneficiary. The Proper Pie Kickstarter exceeded its $15,000 goal in less than a month, ahead of deadline. Setting the bar low is a strategy, and success is more likely if the money pours in early. By some measures, only one in 10 Indiegogo campaigns is fully funded.

This appeal to cultural capital in Church Hill also was the driving force behind last year's Enrichmond Foundation campaign. The nonprofit raised $5,500 for a community apple orchard in Chimborazo Park. Besides being a food source, the orchard would be a beautification project with environmental leanings. Goats, instead of heavy machinery, would remove overgrown vegetation.

Importantly, the orchard also was pitched as an educational resource. Richmond's Blue Bee Cider would work with Enrichmond to provide saplings, volunteer horticulturalists and public classes. That prompted comments on Church Hill People's News, a community news site where select residents also criticized Proper Pie and Urban Farmhouse. Would Blue Bee profit from this community orchard?

The cidery's founder quickly stepped in. Blue Bee Cider wouldn't buy or sell any of the fruit, though it would be observing the growth patterns.

The crowd-funding trend is often called a sharing economy, and it generally describes a post-recession culture in which simply having access to something is more desirable than owning it. Crowd funding can rescue an idea on the verge of failing, as Proper Pie showed. In its finer moments, crowd funding provides an outlet for altruism.

Take Sub Rosa bakery, an artisanal bakery that attracts national press to Church Hill. It suffered water damage during a fire last year, and tenants who shared the building were displaced. A neighbor launched a friends and neighbors for Sub Rosa crowd-funding campaign, arguing that the bakery "is a place where community happens." His campaign was about taking something back. It raised more than $16,000, more than three times the $5,000 goal.

So, one person can achieve a conscientious goal through quick access to the right tool at the right time. As for the other campaigns, well, as some might say, "Let the numbers speak." Many individuals gave as much as $250 to get local pie off the ground, and the urban orchard also exceeded its goal.

Behind the economic theory, though, there's a common denominator: a persistent human desire to bring community and food together. S

Paul Spencer is a Richmond-based writer.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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