During Food Tank’s recent Summit in Chicago, IL, Ertharin Cousin, Founder and CEO of Food Systems for the Future, discussed the services required to help startup businesses scale up and the importance of developing supermarkets that are part of the community. The event, Technology and the Future of Our Food Systems, was hosted in partnership with Discovery Partners Institute, the University of Illinois Chicago, Chicagoland Food & Beverage, Chartwells, and IL Agri-Food Alliance.

Cousin served as the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and as Executive Director for the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP). In the latter role, she says that she helped feed millions of people facing emergency situations each year. “But what we did was put on band-aids,” Cousin says. “We weren’t solving the problems to help people feed themselves.”

After finishing her time with WFP, Cousin launched a study to better understand the barriers to creating “market-based solutions for supporting access to more nutritious foods.” What she found was a “plethora” of initiatives designed to help start-up businesses. But, she says, “there’s still no capital for scale.” Cousin launched Food Systems for the Future to provide the wraparound services for startups to help them scale up.

Cousin believes that to address underlying problems, it is important for food markets to do more than simply sell products to their communities. Most stores operate on thin margins per square foot, she explains. When stores do not consider themselves profitable, they close.

“We need a model where the revenue per square foot does not necessarily depend on everything that goes through the register, that you are also providing additional services inside the box that increase the revenue per square foot to allow for a more revenue-generating operation,” Cousin says. “We also need…an operator that recognizes that they’re not just operating a grocery store in the community, they’re part of the community. And that from the time they agree to put shovels in the ground to build a store that they [must] develop an appropriate relationship with the community.”

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