By Tammy Morales
When Shakir Mohamed, owner of West Seattle Halal Market lost his ability to sell WIC items to his customers he lost $120,000 in sales. Other stores throughout Seattle and south King County are experiencing similar problems as they lose authorization to sell infant formula, bread, milk, and other food items to their low-income customers. These businesses are struggling to stay open because of rules set out by the Washington Department of Health that make it very difficult for small grocery retailers to become authorized WIC and food stamp stores. The rules have little to do with increasing access to WIC food for low-income women. Instead, they are meant to encourage shopping at larger stores where more food items are available. The trouble is that for many immigrant shoppers, they prefer stores that carry familiar items, where someone speaks their language, and where they can say hello to a friend. The rules meant to make shopping easier are, in fact, hurting small businesses and disregarding the preferences of many immigrant communities.
We can, and should, do more to help small immigrant owned businesses in Seattle be successful. By dedicating more of our resources to supporting local business, we can build a more vibrant local economy and build our community assets. It’s time to focus public resources on encouraging community-controlled development. It’s time to move away from business as usual. Rather than using our local resources to attract outside investment, or assume efficiency and size are the only measures of economic success, we should find strategies that build our local assets and generate community-ownership. In a community as diverse as ours, we must ensure that business services and training programs are staffed by people who speak different languages and who can help immigrants navigate the license and permit structures of local government.
Studies show that buying from locally owned businesses, rather than national chains, keeps more money circulating in our local economy. Local businesses tend to buy from other local businesses and service providers. They employ more local people. And more of their profits stay here in our community.
There are many things we can do to change the dynamic of development that gets ahead of the community and leaves people with few options. We need to experiment with new ideas that can address the unequal distribution of wealth in our city. New policy ideas and action can stabilize our communities and stem the displacement happening in Seattle.
As plans develop for investment in the south end, we should consider ways to ensure that local investment creates community benefit. We need to use our community assets to increase community ownership. A thoughtful, comprehensive strategy will build apprenticeship and technical training programs and grow our local businesses. Improving the connection between these programs can offer strong career ladders for our community so that everyone gets a chance to make a livable wage for an honest day’s work.
A food innovation center in the Rainier Beach area is one idea that would increase community ownership. I’ve partnered with other specialists to explore the proposal. The center could include food-processing facilities, a food hub to collect and distribute locally-grown produce, or a shared-use commercial kitchen that entrepreneurs can rent to produce products for wholesale or retail markets. A successful food innovation center would create a business cluster environment that spurs local and regional development for small and mid-size food businesses here in South Seattle. It could improve economic self-sufficiency while improving access to fresh, local food. South Seattle communities have a clear interest in developing industry around healthy food. With so many deep cultural and culinary assets to contribute, the time is right to connect those assets to opportunity.
Small business owners like Shakir should be able to count on their local government to provide clear rules about how to get licensed and permitted. He should not be losing sales because of an agency preference for dealing with large stores, many of which are headquartered outside the area. Similarly, our immigrant communities should be able to shop where they choose to get the products they need. Local businesses often hire people with a better understanding of the products they are selling and take more time to get to know customers. Supporting these businesses not only improves access to healthy food, it also builds ownership in the community and that’s a benefit that serves all of us.
Tammy Morales is a community development professional with a history of engaging neighborhoods in south Seattle and King County around affordable housing, small business development, and healthy food. She is a founding partner at Urban Food Link and a candidate for Seattle City Council, District 2.