The Policy Innovation Lab and DC government are teaming up to ensure that long-standing, local food businesses have the resources and support needed to exist and remain competitive in DC.
Through the pandemic, local government officials found that legacy businesses — identified as businesses that have been in operation for a minimum of 20 years and are recognized as valuable cultural assets — were more susceptible to closing due to rising rent costs and decreases in sales. Long-standing establishments, like Ben’s Chili Bowl, which opened its doors in 1958, are staples in the District’s small business ecosystem and serve as primary contributors to neighborhood identity.
DMPED, FPC, and the Lab, which serves and responds to the needs of communities in DC’s Wards 7 and 8, joined forces to identify and map legacy food businesses. “Wards 7 and 8 have the highest rates of food insecurity and the lowest rates of fresh and healthy food access in DC, so naturally, they are the focus of this project,” said Katie Littman (MPP‘18), DMPED policy and special projects manager and member of the FPC, a coalition of food leaders and government staff appointed by Mayor Muriel Bowser.
As a graduate student, Littman was also a member of the Policy Innovation Lab. “The Lab was one of the best parts of my McCourt experience,” she said. “It was a great testing ground for putting into practice what students were learning in the classroom, and it helped me better understand what it means to be a resident experiencing the forces of gentrification and social injustice.”
Using technology and policy to preserve a rich, local food culture
The Lab team recently prepared a case study analysis of other cities that offer legacy business support. “Every city has different reasons for starting a legacy food business program,” said Littman. “The issue of rising commercial rents and the value in promoting DC culture are just two examples that demonstrate the need for more legacy food business support in the District.”
In the coming weeks, the Lab team also plans to conduct interviews with local business support organizations across DC to learn more about small business owners’ technical needs and how they access capital, and the role of financial institutions in the community.
The Lab team will use learnings from their research and analysis to develop policy recommendations for DMPED and the FPC’s consideration. “Our goal is to ensure that legacy food businesses have the resources and support needed to continue to exist and remain competitive,” said Perrine Monnet (MPP‘22), who leads the Policy Innovation Lab team.
“I became passionate about food insecurity and food systems in my first year at McCourt,” she said. “Now, as a project lead, I get to see how those issues intersect with community development.”
Monnet and her team plan to create a centralized database so that local government agencies and organizations can offer more targeted support to legacy food businesses in the District. The McCourt students may even have the opportunity to present their findings and recommendations during a public FPC meeting.
“The Council often talks with other cities, and everyone doing this work is eager to learn from each other,” said Littman. “I am confident our peers will benefit from the students’ hard work.”