Karen Karp & Partners celebrated 30 years in business this past May. Throughout 2020, we’re marking the milestone by examining our work in the fields of healthy food and health care access, regional food economies, and supply chain sustainability. We’re also reflecting on how we can address the most pressing issues of our times, including creating more resilient supply chains to abet future crises and building more equity across agriculture, food and health innovation, policy, and business. Earlier this year, founder Karen Karp spoke about the beginning of KK&P from 1990 to 1995. In this new, condensed and edited interview, Karen talks about the following five years, her motivation to pursue a graduate degree in sustainability, expanding the company’s work beyond consumer-focused operations, and how a short stint in England helped to inform and shape KK&P’s work for decades to come.
The restaurant was successful, it was generating revenue, and it made up about 80 to 90% of my work. The nonprofit overseeing it, Food & Hunger Hotline, though, felt because it was a revenue-generating enterprise, it didn’t align with the mission of being a nonprofit. One day, they just shut down the restaurant, they shut down the job training program and the organization overall and everybody was just out, the students were out of a training program and the employees were out of jobs and the restaurant was abandoned.
I thought this new area of work, with non-profits, was going to end as well. I thought O.K., it’s a failure but what happened was that I started getting phone calls from other nonprofit organizations who were already thinking of creating revenue-generating programs and now that One City was no longer running they wanted to know all the lessons learned, and how these could inform their plans.
I started working with 8 to 10 clients, the largest of which was Covenant House to open up Ezekiel’s Cafe, which provided job training.
By the end of 1997, I was working 50 to 60 hours a week trying to grow my business in a marketplace that didn’t exist at the time. I was burnt out and looking at graduate programs as I felt I needed to learn more about business as it seemed my niche was developing new economic models within food programs. My husband, then-boyfriend, had the opportunity to move to London for work and I just said let’s do it. Let’s do something completely new. I thought I needed the break to figure out what to do with the business but what I didn’t know was that people from London had recently been in New York City to see projects like Ezekiel’s at Covenant House, who then introduced me to the people at the London-based Good Business. Within two weeks of landing in London I had my first project when they hired me to do a U.K version of One City and Ezekiel’s Cafe. Through them, I learned of a new graduate program at the University of Bath, Responsibility and Business Practice, which combined business and sustainability, which seemed just what I was looking for to further my education and develop skills for my new focus areas.
Almost my whole community in New York was involved in the food world, but in England, I started to realize, especially while working on these job training programs, that having knowledge and insight about food could improve all sorts of other things.
In addition to Good Business, I started work at a housing project for the elderly. It had a public restaurant on the ground floor and then some assisted food service depending on the level of care needed. Because the demographics of the neighborhood were shifting, they needed help integrating nutrition with more culturally appropriate food. That’s when I started to see firsthand how a healthy relationship to food can also help people connect to their community and help keep them living independently longer.
It’s when my work began expanding into food programs and it was about this time that the first Healthy Living Center in Britain was being developed. This was towards the end of 1998, and I found it so forward-thinking that Britain’s National Health Service was recognizing that methods and approaches other than Western medicine were important for community health.
The Bromley-by-Bow Healthy Living Center comprises a community health center including primary care and dentistry but also complementary therapies such as acupuncture, massage, Ayurvedic approaches for pre-and post-natal care, and physical activity such as through community gardens. I was hired to transform a cafe that was already there into one that featured more healthy and culturally-appropriate foods, which also comprised a food entrepreneurship program for Bengali women. I developed all of the food-related programs for the center, including a juice bar in the waiting room, nutrition and cooking programs for pregnant moms and moms who had just given birth, working with an herbalist to grow herbs for different kinds of treatments. That was really where I started to see the link between food, housing and community health.
I think one of the biggest was really how food, even if it isn’t the main component of a program, can influence other parts such as housing and community health.
The other was my graduate work at the University of Bath where my thesis was “How Does Food Sustain Us?” which explored how organizational leaders convey and impart their personal food values within their organizations and how these communities are then transformed through food.
That work continues to influence how I work with both clients and staff at KK&P.