Kimber Lanning: Founder of the Local First Arizona Foundation
Thursday, November 8, 2018
Posted by: Andrea Evans
Kimber Lanning has covered a lot of territory in the last 15 years — going from a local record store and art gallery owner to a statewide leader in responsible economic development strategies.
When she started Local First Arizona in 2003, she focused on organizing locally owned businesses to level the playing field with large corporations in Arizona’s unbalanced economy. As part of the effort, Local First Arizona encouraged citizens to eat and shop locally. “Then we realized we can’t tell everyone to go local or eat local when there’s not enough local,” Lanning said.
As the years passed, and her experience grew, Lanning realized there was more to building a stronger Arizona than just buying locally. So, in 2009, Lanning founded the Local First Arizona Foundation to shift the focus to tackling some of the bigger challenges of the state’s economy.
“The foundation came to be because of an awakening,” Lanning said. “We started with very good intentions, but we were focused on middle-class and up, people who could afford to go local. But a lot of people don’t have access to local business or local foods, so we weren’t speaking to all of Arizona.”
To target the inequity, Local First Arizona Foundation runs three key programs. The first, Fuerza Local, is a business accelerator program for underserved communities. “We take low-income folks who are being victimized by predatory lending and they study with us for six months to learn better business practices,” Lanning said. During this time they also participate in a money pool, a strategy used for centuries to help low-income people save for large expenses.
Each member of the pool contributes the same amount of cash each month. Then, they take turns receiving the lump sum. “We take their payments and report them to Experian, the biggest credit bureau in the country. So graduates develop a credit score and a credit history for the first time in their lives,” Lanning said. Since it inception, Fuerza Local has produced more than 300 graduates who have gone on to start and grow local businesses and create over 400 jobs in their communities.
“We work really hard to give people that leg up — that’s all they need. Now they’re creating jobs for others,” Lanning said.
The second focus area for Local First Arizona Foundation is food and farming. “Arizona is 48th in terms of our ability to feed ourselves. We are one national disaster away from a real crisis here,” Lanning said. The foundation hosts events that convene food producers — from the community and school gardener all the way to big agricultural facilities — to have conversations about how to source more food locally and get food to market more affordably.
As part of that work, the foundation has created goodfoodfinderaz.com, a website that serves as a hub for consumers, procurers, farmers, restaurateurs and others to learn about and connect with Arizona’s local food providers. “It’s a resource if, for instance, you’re traveling to Prescott and want to know if there’s a farmers market there this weekend, or if you’re a chef looking for more local products to serve,” Lanning said. “We list every single school garden and community garden in Maricopa County.”
The third area of the foundation’s work involves serving as the state’s Rural Development Council. “We do a lot of work in about 25 rural towns, helping them with a wide variety of things, from increasing tourism to workforce development,” Lanning said. The foundation also performs economic leakage studies to determine the types of businesses that are missing from local economies. “I can tell you if you’re reasonably good at cutting hair, you’re going to do well in the town of Superior. I know that Williams needs a dry cleaner and Ajo needs a bike shop,” Lanning said. “If you can plug those leaks, all of that money stays in those towns.”
When Lanning started Local First Arizona, she had no idea it would take her to leading a foundation and promoting broad and responsible development across the state. “We are in a different world than we were in 15 years ago, and we need to be responsive to that,” she said. “Part of that is addressing inequity and the wealth gap that continues to widen, whether it’s a rural family that’s been here for a long time that just isn’t making it work or a small entrepreneur who has a shop everybody drives by but never thinks to stop in. We need to solve some of these critical problems. There’s no excuse in a state as wealthy as ours.”
To learn more about Local First Arizona Foundation, visit localfirstazfoundation.org.
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