CASE STUDY: Urban Tree Connection

Growing Food and an Organization in Philadelphia

Skip Weiner and the organization he founded, The Urban Tree Connection (UTC), have been assisting low-income residents in the Haddington neighborhood of West Philadelphia since 1989 to revitalize their neighborhood by transforming abandoned open spaces into safe and functional places that inspire and promote positive human interaction. A major part of this mission was a network of urban farms, ranging from some as small as a single lot to others as large as a whole city block, providing food for a growing number of low-income residents.

A Growing Problem

This mission was given a turbo charge in 2011 when UTC received a $300,000 USDA Community Food Grant to provide subsidized food to low-income neighbors. To meet demand, UTC quickly launched a CSA program in 2012. But as Skip admits, “We went from a service provider to a food producer and distributor too quickly, and the growth was too much for us to handle.”

So Skip turned to Jen Brodsky and Kitchen Table Consultants, partly because he knew of their reputation for providing collaborative and effective consulting services, and also because Skip had known Jen for many years. As Skip explains, “When you know someone on a personal level, there’s a level of trust and intimacy to help you identify what the problem is, and how to deal with it. It all goes back to understanding how each other work.”

Tough Questions, Honest Answers

Although there were a lot of unknowns, Skip says, “UTC staff were sold on Jen’s ability to ask the tough questions, and get honest answers from us.” The largest question concerned the CSA. Although the CSA was an exciting new project, it was proving to be unsustainable in the current structure. So Skip asked Jen to go beyond the confines of their consulting arrangement and come on as the UTC Interim Chief Operating Officer. Jen agreed and her first task was to facilitate the transition of the CSA program and its team to their own for-profit business. Although staff transitions are never easy, Jen and the Kitchen Table Consultants team worked tirelessly to find the most equitable and intentional way forward. Today, the spin-off business, Philly Food Works, is wildly successful and the former employees that run the business still maintain a close relationship with Skip and UTC.

According the Skip, the next question was, “So now, how do we up our production and manage our growth to continue to subsidize produce for our low-income community members.” He and Jen worked closely to take an extensive inventory of each UTC department to see where efficiencies could be created and redundancy eliminated. Collaboratively, they have professionalized the leadership positions at UTC and have positioned the organization for continued growth and service. Skip says that he and some employees were worried if Jen would get the mission, but he says, “Jen makes us understand why we are doing this, why it’s important, and how to do it.” Jen has helped clarify and elevate UTC’s mission. She builds the systems and modes of communication that keeps UTC focused on their highest goal as an organization, serving the community.

A Community Food Model

It was the trust between Jen and the team that helped UTC finally capitalize on that growth. A year and a half after Jen first came on, Skip says that UTC now has clearly defined departments that have the resources and structure to work in a more efficient and effective way. At the end of the fiscal year before Jen came on, UTC was in the red. This year, due to better program management capacity and internal fundraising, UTC is firmly in the black. This stabilization will allow UTC to continue growing the community run Neighborhood Foods Cooperative into a formidable grower and distributor of local, fresh produce to low-income neighbors.

Skip credits not just Jen with this achievement, but also the collaborative spirit of the Kitchen Table Consultant team. He credits Ted LeBow with building the financial systems that allow UTC to better manage growth and cash flow, as well as Adam Lauer with creating the basic bookkeeping systems that keep UTC focused on it’s financial and programmatic goals.

When asked if he was pleased with the work Jen and Kitchen Table Consultants provided, he says, “The growth continues and Jen is there to continue to manage it and be the catalyst for that growth. Kitchen Table Consultants is at the switch of all of it and is making that happen.”