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Feeding the Regional Economy
Feeding the Regional Economy

From food carts to farmer’s markets, fine wine and high-end dining to burgers and beers at neighborhood brew pubs, Portland is a hub for food and foodies alike.

What that means for the local economy is highlighted in a new report from Toulan School of Urban Studies researchers Drs. Greg Schrock, Jenny Liu, and graduate student Jamaal Green. The “food economy” combines four broad sectors: production, processing, distribution, and services. As the report makes clear, the economic impact of food on the city and the surrounding region amounts to a whole lot more than a hill of organic beans.

A first-of-its-kind in scope, covering the food economy from farm to table, the report examines the workforce and economic output of food-related industries in Multnomah, Clackamas, Yamhill, Washington, and Columbia counties. Spread across 31 industries, the region’s food economy accounts for an impressive 167,092 jobs according to 2012 data. In Portland alone, just over one in every ten jobs—nearly 40,000 paid positions—is in the food industry. Regionally, that workforce generates $6 billion dollars in income and allows local governments to collect $600 million in taxes and fees. The total output of the food economy in the five counties included in the study is nearly $22 billion.

According to Dr. Schrock, city, county, and metro officials recognize that the region’s food system provides critical resilience in light of factors like increasing population density, development, and climate change, which all pose threats to the larger economy. At risk are thousands of jobs, food security, efforts to increase sustainable practices in food-related urban and rural settings, and endeavors to increase social equity for residents and workers throughout the region. In order to better understand what’s at stake, the Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS) at PSU funded the study of Portland’s food economy, which is also part of the Portland Climate Action Collaborative partnership between ISS and Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

The report addressed a number of questions city officials had about the region’s food economy. From what sectors is it comprised and where are those sectors located? How large is it? Whom do the various food-related industries employ, for what, and how well are employees compensated? How does Portland’s food economy compare to that of other regions and the nation as a whole? And what is the overall impact of food production, processing, distribution, and services on the regional economy?

“We’re big on food here in Portland,” said Mr. Green, whose research focuses on economic development, planning, and urban manufacturing labor markets. “But that enthusiasm doesn’t tell us much about what the growth of the food economy actually means for those people working in it. To get a handle on that we need to know what sectors are growing, what sectors are shrinking, and why. And then we need to ask how those changes are affecting the labor market. That’s what we went about doing in the report. And now that we have that data, the city can use it in support of efforts to develop and implement policies related to labor and food.”

The report shows that between 2002 and 2012, job numbers in food production shrank somewhat, while the processing and distribution sectors posted modest, but continued growth. The food services sector, however, which includes grocery stores, specialty food retailers, and restaurants showed tremendous expansion during that same time period, adding almost 10,000 jobs.

The study also reveals that annual wages in the food economy range from roughly $20,000 in food services to nearly $50,000 for some positions in food distribution. The annual average wage of $25,000 for a food economy worker is far below that of the average worker in other, non-food related sectors. The hourly rate of about $12.50 is barely half the $23.11 “living wage” for a single adult with one child in Multnomah county, and even below the $15.26 rate for a family with two working adults and two children.

In addition to position and wage data by sector, the report also highlights the diversity of the food economy workforce, the geographical distribution of food production, processing, distribution and service jobs in the City of Portland and throughout the region, and the growth of niche industries.

“Sustainability may not immediately come to mind when thinking about an economic analysis like this,” Dr. Schrock said. “But it fits into a way of thinking that encompasses a broader framework. It isn’t just about the environment. Sure that’s a big part of it, but we have to include social opportunity and equity. The food economy and the opportunities it provides the workforce are an integral part of thinking about sustainability in the context of social justice and equity.”

Across the food economy growth has meant positive changes for some industries and stress for others. Rising property values, particularly in the city’s Central East Side, are changing the location and character of the food processing and distribution sectors. Rising rents are driving well-paying jobs that do not require postsecondary training or credentials away from the city’s interior. Meanwhile, decentralization of food services is opening niche markets for retailers eager to tap into communities that may not have had localized food options in the past.

With knowledge of how the regional food economy is growing, where growth is taking place, and who is benefiting from the change, city, county, and regional officials can make more informed decisions about how to plan to address food-related threats, while keeping the city moving forward in a fair and balanced way.