Karen Karp & Partners celebrated 30 years in business this past May. Throughout the year, 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. In addition to a series of posts exploring KK&P’s history (see HERE and HERE), we will also be documenting a series of topical conversations with KK&P friends and collaborators.
For our first of these posts, Karen Karp speaks with economist Teresa Lynch about their collaboration over the past decade, how it started, why it’s unique, and how it delivers value to our clients.
Tell us a bit about the work of your firm Mass Economics.
Teresa Lynch: We are a Cambridge-based research and consulting firm. We work primarily on economic development strategies in low and moderate-income areas. We also provide the data and analytics to let our clients— which spans the public, philanthropic, nonprofit, and private sectors—strategize around urban and regional economies. Our research division develops data and tools for analyzing local and regional economies.
When and why did you start looking at economies through the distinct lens of food?
Teresa Lynch: In 2009, I was working with the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, leading their research group. We were in discussions with US EDA, which had mostly supported projects for regional economies, but agreed to support a project looking at the food economies in low- and moderate-income areas in Boston and Detroit.
A lot of federal funding goes for what are called traded clusters. That’s where most of the market for the goods is outside of that region. Think automotives in Detroit or films in Hollywood. Those projects are important. But we needed to think about job generation across the country, especially in low-income areas. One of the great things about food is that your findings can be replicated and applied in some form across local and regional economies. We felt if we focused on food, we’d have findings that could generate jobs in cities across the U.S.
When and how did KK&P’s work first engage explicitly with an economic development lens?
Karen Karp: I started working with nonprofits two years after I started the company. That was when I became aware of the potential for food to be transformative for communities and individuals through job training and workforce development. I remember some of the early projects—developing a nonprofit restaurant or a cooperative grocery—that were conceived as a way to help revive these neighborhoods, sometimes as small as a two- or three-block area of a neighborhood in Brooklyn, for example.
When and how did you start working together?
Teresa Lynch: When KK&P responded to the RFP looking for a food consultant for Detroit-Boston Food Cluster project at ICIC.
Mass Economics staff are not experts in food. Our expertise is in how urban and regional economies work and how to measure things. While we know something about food, to really do good strategy work, you need industry cluster expertise. We wanted to get people with deep food expertise on the team.
Karen Karp: When I saw the RFP, I thought, “OK, this is a very big version of the things we’ve been doing in these neighborhoods, but now we’d have an opportunity to look at two entire cities.” I remember I worked really hard on that RFP response in part because I knew that we had the food expertise but I craved the opportunity to do a project at that scale.
Do you think the food sector has become a more credible way of looking at economic development in the past 10-20 years?
Teresa Lynch: Definitely. One of the big things that happened was that the understanding of food expanded beyond processing and manufacturing. Part of it is that food got better and more interesting from a consumer perspective. We’ve also seen food help revitalize urban corridors and cities. Then, the logistics evolve and create a huge set of opportunities and food.
I first began to understand how powerful food can be for different types of system transformation when living and working in the UK, where we were looking at food as a lever to achieve a not-specifically-food-centric goal. It was eye-opening for me, and, honestly very refreshing to see that food can be a means to an end beyond the delivery of a meal or a restaurant experience or putting a sexy new product on a shelf. Working on large-scale economic development projects helps everyone see the significance of farming, restaurants, small food manufacturing, warehousing, distribution and even the waste stream. Our local and national economies depend very much on food, how many jobs and career paths this sector creates, and how food businesses are critical anchors of community.
Read Next: COVID-19 Hit the Restaurant Industry Especially Hard: Where to Go from Here?