Q+A: Praxis Marketplace founder Glenn Ford on aquaponics and inner-city groceries

Glenn FordGlenn Ford plans to open something more than just a grocery store.

Ford's Praxis Marketplace, which despite several delays he expects to be up and running within a year, might be best described as an urban agricultral food holding company. In addition to operating a physical store within an underserved community in north Minneapolis, says Ford, Praxis will grow produce in its own nearby aquaponics facility, plus offer brand development services.

Ford describes his grocery crusade as not just about access to healthy food, but also the development of a holisitic and economically viable food production system. The food industry, he maintains, can be a community builder, a job creator, and a shot in the arm for the health of a region.

We spoke to Ford about his plans for Praxis and his take on food's role in community building.

Where did you get the inspiration for Praxis Marketplace?

I was an executive at one time with Pepsi Co. and because of that background I had an opportunity to see how food can create jobs at a pretty rapid rate without some of the heavy requirements that we sometimes attribute to other industries. Food can be a person's first job and it can also be their future career as well, once they've had an opportunity to work and develop skills.

The low labor rate in our country is so bad that the food production industry has moved away. This then means that more of our food is processed to create a longer shelf life along with a whole range of other requirements, and this ends up being bad for our health.

Beyond health, the idea for Praxis comes from something that I had been doing with farmers in upstate New York to help them use food as a tool to boost jobs by developing their food as retail brands. One day, flying back from New York, I asked myself, "Why aren't we doing this same sort of thing in inner cities?" They need the employment more than anyone.

At first I spent time trying to convince other groceries to move into inner-city neighborhoods, but they all had a whole litany of reasons why they didn't want to. It was almost as if people in those neighborhoods didn't need to eat. I grew frustrated with it and decided that I'll create some ideas surrounding a grocery store and we'll build it ourselves.

Once you had the idea, how did you go about creating the business?

I really dedicated myself to learning about the industry. I knew something about retail before getting started, but I went much deeper than before, and I spent a whole lot of time with wholesalers and some folks at Supervalu who I knew. I recognized that in order to provide food to these inner cities, you first needed a customer and then at the same time could be the retailer who sold to people in the neighborhood. That started me down a path where it was both about grocery stores and also about brands that the store could own, which is how I got involved in the aquaponics business because I had been on the board of one for years. So Praxis really [is a] food holding company that is going to build brands and do aquaponics as a way to promote employment in inner cities.

Why is it important to focus on the whole process of food production?

I think that in a lot of ways the sole focus on access to food doesn't deal with the whole picture. If we care about people's health, then we should go look at what the World Health Organization says about health, and that is that in order for a person to be healthy, they've got to have good food choices. But then they also have to have a good economy in their area and a culture that includes them. There are at least half a dozen factors that make up the social determinants of health, and where I take exception to a lot of people in the industry is that they're only dealing with food access, which means these other variables aren't being addressed at all. I contend that the solution of just putting a store in a neighborhood is not generating the results that some people hope it would. You have to do with everything, not just one variable. Because I don't know of other people going out to do that, I've recruited some very talented people who all have some components to contribute and started building Praxis.

What does the company building look like?

We are actually in the final days of buying a very large deserted structure in St. Paul where we are going to do aquaponics. We're building a grocery store in north Minneapolis on Plymouth and Penn, and we're also active in Chicago in St. Louis and other cities.

There was some cleanup work that needed to be done on Plymouth and Penn, so we're working with the city to have that taken care of. That'll start being cleaned in August, and as soon as it is done, we'll have a store up in around six months. The aquaponics in St. Paul, we actually hope to occupy that within the next 90 days. A year from now we'll have those two things going.

How common is it for grocery stores to have their own in-house food production operation?

It's not commonly discussed like that, but for all intents and purposes food retailers being vertically integrated was not unusual at all. If you look at some of the captive relationships that Walmart has, a lot of those are captive brands. Or if you look at Trader Joe's, they have captive suppliers, and Aldi's basically has their own food brands, so it's really not uncommon.

Are you hoping to produce all of the food that Praxis sells within the Twin Cities?

I would absolutely love it if we could produce all of it within the Twin Cities, but I don't think we'd be able to. Once you start dealing with beef and some of the other products, that could become problematic. But we do want to be as local as we can. It's part of our mandate to employ people locally.

We think that food has become more distant, which in turn can affect people's understanding of it as healthy. The closer you can make your food ... the better off we are for all local economies. We also believe that it's possible for easily 55 percent of everything you see in a grocery store to be locally produced. If more local communities started pushing for more local elements in their food, we'd really get through some of these unemployment issues that we have.