HNA Networks founding director Bob Heuer has taken an unconventional career path. Fluent in Spanish since the 1970s, he brings a passion for cross-cultural understanding to his work as an independent researcher, writer, political strategist and community organizer. In 1989, he found himself approaching the intersection of food, farming and regional economies for the first time. Then he chronicled the experience in this Chicago Reader article “Bus to the Future.” 

Heuer has worked on multiple fronts to make reinvestment in cities, suburbs and country towns more attractive than new construction on farm fields. He views unchecked suburbanization as a contributor to both the concentration of urban poverty and racial injustice. 

In the mid 1990s, Heuer’s community organizing work for West Side Chicago’s St. Agatha Catholic Church brought regional media attention to urban disinvestment. The church sponsored three annual marches to a vacant lot at 1550 S. Hamlin. That was the address of an apartment building where Dr. Martin Luther King brought his family in 1966 with hopes of making Chicago the starting point for a national “End Slums” campaign. 

Today, 1550 S. Hamlin is the address of the 45-unit Dr. King Legacy apartments complex—and a source of hope for the North Lawndale neighborhood.  Yet, for too long, such block-by-block urban reinvestment projects have been dwarfed by regional growth patterns that extend suburban borders mile-by-mile.  (Here is Heuer’s 1993 Chicago Reader article “Path of Progress.”)

In the 1960s, Dr. King feared the new interstate highway system would further divide the races by making outlying farmland ripe for new suburbs.  Subdivisions and employment centers sprung up in locales geographically removed from the inner city. Urban policy solutions became disconnected from their regional context.

In 2011, former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening told Heuer that collaboration between “smart growth” proponents and farmers “must be the heart of an ongoing conversation about America’s future.”

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, political leaders are calling for sustained financial investment in black and brown communities.  Food, nutrition and agricultural programming must be part of the plan to deliver on Dr. King’s dream for urban America. Another is coordinated investment in “green” communities.  Prosperous exurban farm communities will create, in effect, a market-based firewall to encourage urban and suburban reinvestment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed our over-dependence on global food supply chains–and the  need for climate-smart public policy that puts food first. We’re learning that two of the most essential economic sectors are food and pharmaceuticals.  What’s not so obvious is how universal access to nutritious food can reduce our over-dependence on pharmaceuticals. 

Children need to be taught the connection between healthy food, exercise, wellness and learning.  Local governments need to act on the fact that resilient communities are places that encourage edible gardens in backyards and public spaces. 

Let’s kiss goodbye the American cultural ethic that equates “progress” with ever-outward suburban expansion. The quick-buck economics of paving over farmland need an update to account for 21st century realities. Valuing healthy soil for what it is—a gift that keeps on giving—a.k.a. a “renewable resource.” Valuing healthy soil for what it is can become the first step to helping market actors maintain productive farmland near population centers.

Food security must be the first line of national defense in the public health infrastructure. This “army” will consist of farmers large and small, profitably supplying markets down the road or around the globe.

The building blocks for local and regional food supply networks are everywhere. But nowhere do they fully deliver on their potential. A key impediment is fragmented deployment of financial services. This Federal Reserve Bank report makes the case for coordination and collaboration between financial sector constituencies to scale local and regional food systems.

The HNA Networks’ team can help organizations build public/private partnerships to deliver comprehensive financing solutions needed for local food, nutrition and agricultural initiatives to drive the next generation of community/economic development in the U.S.

Samples of Heuer’s work: