By: Melinda Kougioumtzis

With a vision to produce and process lettuce in a low-income Atlanta neighborhood while creating jobs and opportunities for community residents, The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta turned to Social Enterprise @ Goizueta (“SE@G”) to help research and design a sustainable business model.

Social Enterprise at Goizueta Team
From left to right: Alicia Philipp, Ellen Macht, Ellen Williams, Shobhika Somani, Lavonne Akinwumiju, Betty Tezera, Kathryn Hemsing and Peter Roberts (Missing: Chelsea Schott) Photo: Tony Benner

To achieve its goal of “generating wealth where it [does] not exist,” The Community Foundation established the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative (“AWBI”), whose mission is to develop employee-owned cooperative business models for economically disadvantaged neighborhoods across Atlanta.

Currently, 90% of the lettuce consumed in Georgia travels roughly 2,500 miles from farms in California and Arizona, and less than 2% of Atlanta’s lettuce consumption is grown locally. Capitalizing on the momentum of the local food movement, AWBI wants to find a way to supply universities, hospitals and ultimately grocery stores in Atlanta with lettuce that is grown close to home.  With this in mind, AWBI has begun working on its “Atlanta Lettuce Works” project.

Given the scope of the project and her “admiration for the work [SE@G] has done for [other] nonprofit organizations,” AWBI consultant Ellen Macht, 77BBA and GBS Advisory Board member, approached SE@G for assistance in creating a business model that works and that will attract the needed financing from lenders, donors and investors.  “The business students and GBS alumni that formed the AWBI team were instrumental in carrying out the vision we [had] for the project,” said Ellen.  “They were an integral part of the decision making for how we should create this business.”

The Atlanta Lettuce Works plan proposes using a strategically located property in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Atlanta provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  Lettuce will be grown in four greenhouses and then processed on site by employees hired from the neighborhood.  These employees will earn a living wage plus full benefits, and will have an opportunity to receive healthy dividends from the business as they transition into business owners.

Initially, lettuce will be sold to cooperating “anchor institutions,” such as universities and hospitals, whose purchasing power represents the foundation for the venture. Once reliable and high-quality production is established, Atlanta Lettuce Works will begin supplying lettuce to local grocery store chains.  Within five years, the SE@G team projects that Atlanta Lettuce Works can generate annual net income in excess of $3.5 million.

“AWBI has identified a real gap in the local market for lettuce,” according to Peter Roberts, Professor of Organization & Management and Academic Director of SE@G.  “Atlanta Lettuce Works fills that gap with a well-designed operational model that simultaneously addresses the needs of customers and potential employees, as well as impact investors and project lenders.”

By establishing the facility in a neighborhood where nearly 40% of the residents currently live below the poverty line, Atlanta Lettuce Works fully realizes AWBI’s central mission of generating economic growth in a high-priority area.

For team member Lavonne Akinwumiju, 13BBA, the potential to improve a local community’s quality of life was one of the most rewarding aspects of working with AWBI. “With this project,” she said, “the people of Pittsburgh will be able to work and provide for their families, and also have sustainable food for their communities.”

Gail Hayes, Director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Atlanta Civic Site, said they had purchased the Pittsburgh land with the goal of creating “something that would be an economic engine for the entire neighborhood…and the students produced a terrific product.”

The Atlanta Lettuce Works project equally encapsulates the mission of SE@G.  “We are challenging ourselves to work with our partners to examine and promote ways that business models and markets can be used to promote meaningful and sustainable social benefits,” said Roberts.  “The combination of economic benefits for residents of the Pittsburgh neighborhood and environmental benefits for Atlanta more generally make this a particularly promising impact project.”

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