Joe Bute is on an ambitious mission to transform Pittsburgh’s economy. Not through the now-preferred route of “eds and meds,” but rather, through something a little more tangible and familiar to us all—food. His non-profit Food21 sees food as a vehicle to create new jobs and development, drive clean energy solutions, and improve access to fresh, nutrient-rich produce across the greater Western Atlantic Food Shed (an area spanning Pittsburgh to Columbus, Ohio).

With sustainability as a core focus, Food21 first took inspiration from the Dutch and their cutting-edge approach to controlled environment agriculture. Bute and his partners thought that this approach could also work in Pittsburgh and teamed up with People’s Gas to explore the idea further. After researching the market and opportunities available, they settled on three areas of focus for their work: fostering sustainable local food value chains, becoming an information hub for food economy data, and empowering local food entrepreneurs to succeed.

Ever since, the organization has been launching projects all over the Pittsburgh region, partnering with everyone from Pittsburgh’s craft beer community to grow malting barley for their beer to Catapult Greater Pittsburgh to support the launch of their Catapult Culinary incubator. Since late 2019, they have also turned their attention to Larimer. The work began as a way to explore food-based opportunities in the community with the Larimer Consensus Group (LCG) and has since evolved to working with Flourishing Communities—a newly formed community organization growing from Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church—on re-purposing the Larimer School’s gym and auditorium into a community event center and celebration hall, complete with a full-service catering kitchen and engagement center. Since the beginning of 2022, they have also been partnering with Flourishing Communities to plan a prototype of a new urban greenhouse and greengrocer nearby that can supply fresh produce to the community year-round.

In our conversation, Bute explains how he came to be doing this transformative work, why food can be such a powerful tool for community development, more details on what’s in store for Larimer, and much more.

Can you share a little background about yourself and how you got into this work?

Joe Bute Food21 Pittsburgh
Joe Bute, president of Hollymead Capital and founder of Food21.

For the first 20 years of my professional life, I was in community development, working mostly in Chicago, with some years in the Bay Area. In 1989, I got recruited to run a development corporation on the north side of Pittsburgh called North Side Civic Development. I did that for a couple years, focusing on several major projects including the Riverside Innovation Center and Washington’s Landing. After that, I worked with the Steel Valley Authority and launched what is now called the Strategic Early Warning Network—a way to head off plant closures and job losses in the State. After about six years, I left that world and got into private investment banking. Around 2010, I started thinking about how I had these life experiences—50% in the world of community development and organizing and 50% in the world of business finance—and how I should find a way to put those two things together if I wanted to make some sense out of my life. That was the origin of Hollymead Capital, my private consulting company.

The idea was that we were going to focus primarily on social impact investing and social entrepreneurship. We decided that the best way to do that was to focus on basic needs and addressing those needs. That would include energy, housing, infrastructure, food, etc. It is kind of funny that we made that broad statement, and then about two months later, we just stopped at food and didn’t go any further. I guess that’s because of my history. My mom and dad had a country inn down in Virginia, and I grew up in the restaurant industry, so I spent a lot of time with food. My daughter, who was running a food blog at the time, thought it was pretty cool too. So, we started poking around at ways in which we could get engaged on food and food-related community development. Then, in 2017 I met a gentleman named Barry Kukovich who is now on our board. Barry was working for People’s Gas at the time. He read the National Geographic article about the Dutch approach to agriculture and wanted to figure out how to get his company involved in the food economy. I told him that energy is a fundamental ingredient to building a successful regional food system, and you have to view the food economy holistically, just like the Dutch do. He said, “That’s great. Why don’t you come in and tell that to my boss?” That led to us writing a white paper on the topic for People’s Gas in 2018 about food production and enterprise and how that works in neighborhoods and communities. At the end of 2018, we launched Food21 of Pennsylvania and People’s Gas underwrote the startup of it.

Food21 sees the food economy as an interconnected ecosystem that has the potential to create new jobs and opportunities in Pittsburgh’s communities.

What is the connection between food and community development?

We believe food is a development tool, just like ELDI sees housing as a development tool. Typically, all the pieces of the food value chain are represented in a given community, whether you know it or not. There’s always somebody who’s farming and growing food, somebody who’s distributing food, somebody who has a grocery store, and somebody who has a restaurant. While the pieces are there, they are not always connected, and each individual actor doesn’t always see how one step in the value chain connects to the next.  That means we don’t have to bring something in from the outside to develop a community, we just have to find ways to connect all the dots inside, and if we do that, we get leverage and synergies. The idea is that food, whether it’s in food entrepreneurship and food businesses, or it’s in restaurants and manufacturing, is a great doorway for a whole lot of folks to get jobs and go to work.

We live in Pittsburgh, and if you’ve talked to the folks downtown at the Allegheny Conference, it’s all about “eds and meds.” And then they’re scratching their heads trying to figure out why nearly 40% of Black women in Pittsburgh are living in poverty. Why are these communities having such a difficult time economically? Well, because the jobs and investments that you’re pouring into these industries don’t create livable wages or job opportunities for a whole lot of people in the community. The data overwhelmingly shows that the majority of people that work in these jobs in the food industry are from disproportionately minority women households—and it’s much more flexible work. It creates greater diversity, and it’s also culturally significant, whereas a robotics plant consumes an enormous amount of capital and doesn’t create much return on investment for the people who live in the impacted area. It doesn’t do much for the neighborhood at the end of the day.

We believe food is a development tool, just like ELDI sees housing as a development tool.

What are the Dutch doing right that you believe we should apply to Pittsburgh?

The Dutch were so inspirational for us because they saw the interconnectedness of everything. They didn’t set out to become the world’s biggest cucumber producer or the world’s biggest hog producer. They approached food as an ecosystem, because their participation in the international food economy is dependent on every one of those elements. Now they’re one of the leading dairy nations in Europe. They’re one of the leading meat producers in Europe. They’re one of the leading vegetable producers in Europe. You just go on down the list. It indicates that they saw these pieces as connected, not disconnected. By contrast, if you’re in the United States, what you see is that everybody has built these silos and is working in their own area. The meat industry is a classic example. 50 to 75 years ago, cows and pigs were raised locally, processed locally, and butchered and consumed locally. Over 75 years, the cows got put on a bus and sent to Wyoming. The pigs got put on a bus and sent to Iowa, and now all your pork comes from Iowa and all your beef comes from Wyoming, which makes no sense. Before, every community basically had its own resilient food system but now we’ve compartmentalized and separated all of the component pieces. Right after the Second World War, 60-70% of what you ate in most cities across the United States came from within about 200 miles of where you lived. Now that number is 2,000-3,000 miles on average according to the USDA, so we have a long way to go before we knit back together a resilient and sustainable food economy. That’s one of the things that the pandemic really exposed — what happens when you depend on a global supply chain, which everybody thought was very resilient and robust. It turns out it was very fragile and easy to break apart, and nobody had any idea how vulnerable it was until it was too late, when suddenly, we didn’t have any meat or toilet paper on the shelves.

Photo from the National Geographic story, “How the Netherlands Feeds the World,” which inspired Joe Bute and his partners to create Food21. Pictured: A sea of greenhouses surrounds a farmer’s home in the Westland region of the Netherlands.

That’s one of the things that the pandemic really exposed — what happens when you depend on a global supply chain, which everybody thought was very resilient and robust. It turns out it was very fragile and easy to break apart.

What does Food21 do to foster resilient food economies in a neighborhood?

We see ourselves as a catalytic organization, and by that, I mean our job assumes that all these assets, in one form or another, exist within the communities in which we want to have an impact. Our work is around organizing these food assets so that they’re talking to each other, sharing information, and building relationships with each other. We focus on the gaps that make it hard for them to do that. In other words, the social or physical infrastructure that separates people from one another in terms of achieving that objective.

What is Food21 working on in Larimer?

We’re working on a greenhouse project with Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church on Larimer Avenue together with Local Dutch, an indoor growing and controlled agriculture company. What they figured out was we need to develop hydroponic growing systems that have a very small footprint and don’t require a lot of advanced technology to make them work. These systems generate fresh, year-round produce of all kinds of varieties and provide that to the community through a retail outlet built on-site. So, this is a greengrocery with a greenhouse attached to it with on-demand growing of around 150 varieties of produce. Somebody can come in and say, “We really want green onions.” The technology allows you to plant those green onions and harvest them in three weeks. The greenhouse creates 20 jobs, takes up a half-acre of space, and provides somewhere between 200 to 300,000 pounds of fresh produce every year in that one, half-acre facility. To put that in perspective, two Grow Pittsburgh garden sites produce around 28,000 pounds of produce a year, according to their 2020 annual report.

This is a game changer because it’s also easy to replicate in other communities and is inexpensive to build. Where does Food 21 fit into all that? We’re helping the local community organization, Flourishing Communities, come together around this. We’re doing all the market research, finding out where all the places are that they can sell this produce so that economically we can get this thing off to a flying start. The other thing that we’re doing at Food21 is taking a step back once we built one to see how we can build 10 more. A project like this gives you the ability to create small, direct community impact. We’re opening up a new green grocery store within the community that starts a conversation and can become a portal for health and wellness and nutrition and better diet.

Food21 is working to transform the former gym of the Larimer School into a community center and celebration hall.
A bird’s eye view of Food21 and Flourishing Communities’ plans for Larimer—an urban farm shop and celebration hall would work together to provide fresh produce to the community and support food-based businesses in the area.

What is the Larimer Celebration Hall and how does that fit into your plans?

The community of Larimer has been working on renovating the Larimer School, a historic community landmark. Attached to the school, is an 8-9,000 square foot space where the auditorium and gymnasium used to be. The developer didn’t know what to do with the space, so they asked us to come in and consider an alternate use. We recognized that there was a need for catering space in the community as there’s no real catering center or gathering space for social events in Larimer or Lincoln-Lemington. So, we took a crack at it and redesigned the space completely. Through the LCG, we had the developer level the floors where the theater was and put a new roof on it. Then we were left with about 8,000 square feet of usable space, in which we can install a commercial catering kitchen and make an around 150-seat banquet hall.

One of the things we discovered when we were working with Catapult Greater Pittsburgh is that a lot of caterers in the East End basically do catering out of their homes, but you can’t cater out of your kitchen unless you get it certified. So, it’s a dilemma. You can grow a catering business in the community, but without a support system and access to a commercial kitchen, it’s very difficult to scale. So, we said, “What happens if we marry these two things?” We would create this event center, which should be self-sustaining after a year, and we estimate it’ll attract around 10-20,000 people a year. Then, on the other side, we can have a demonstration kitchen and community room where Flourishing Communities can run health and wellness programs. It all fits together. The other cool thing is that we’ll be buying produce from just a block down the street at our urban greenhouse. As we were planning all this, another group came into the community half a block away called Steel City Squash. They asked us to set up our kitchens so that we could do all the afterschool programming for feeding their kids. That way they didn’t have to build out a catering kitchen in their facility. So, you start to connect all the dots, and you realize these relationships create synergies that get bigger over time.

What stage of development are these Larimer projects at now?

The greenhouse is in the second phase of the feasibility study. We’ve identified the site and put a reservation on all the parcels. In the case of the Celebration Hall, we are done with the design and pre-construction. Now we are in negotiations with the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh for them to finish out the box —that means putting in the lavatories, ceiling, electrical wiring, HVAC system, etc. Then we’re talking to the Hillman Foundation and others about raising the balance, which is about $1 million dollars to build out the hall. We’re going to outsource the management of the kitchen to an existing local, well-respected catering company, and we pulled together local East End entrepreneurs, including Roxanne Easely, who have been invaluable in advising on the kitchen and business plan. I’m thinking this is all done by the end of 2023. As for the greenhouse, once we get site control, the greenhouse takes about six months to build, and we think it shouldn’t be difficult to secure funding from grant sources.

Larimer Pittsburgh, young man walking down the street with the sun shining
Larimer Avenue captured by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource. After years of neglect, Larimer is starting to benefit from new development stimulated by the Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant awarded in 2014.

Why Larimer?

There are a couple of reasons. Larimer is an easily overlooked community. It’s been overlooked for years, not just by the city but also by the foundations and the state. They let the entire Larimer Avenue commercial district collapse, but then with all the community organization and effort that went into the Choice Neighborhoods Grant, they received a huge infusion of capital to build new affordable housing. However, they still didn’t really have a strategy for the commercial district. This work helps address that. Larimer is also a strategic community for the folks that live behind it over in Lincoln-Lemington. If you really want to have a significant impact and demonstrate effectiveness in a revitalization strategy that connects people and unites them, this is a great place to do it. And there are some very dedicated and committed people there. That’s a big part of the story too. Also, one of Food21’s board members is a gentleman named Henry Simons, the grandson of Elsie and Henry Hillman. He was passionate about transforming Larimer and had all of these fabulous ideas about how to make food a central part of the Larimer community and economic development there. Larimer is not the end of something. It’s the beginning of something—and it’s really important to look at how you build a resilient community. That’s really at the heart of this story, particularly after the pandemic. You can talk all you want about housing, but if folks don’t have access to food on a regular basis, and they don’t have a way to keep that income in the community to support them from a financial standpoint, it’s problematic. This is just one more way to close the loop in terms of the outflows of cash and the opportunity for jobs and career development in this community. Those are all connected pieces.

➡ Learn more about Food21.

➡Check out the plans for the Larimer Celebration Hall.