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Walden Mutual Bank Seeks to Support Sustainable Food Systems

Specialty Food Association

A new bank focused on lending to small, sustainable food companies and other organizations in New England and New York has been gaining traction as both a funding source and a networking hub for its customers.

Walden Mutual Bank, which received its Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation charter last fall, is providing loans of up to about $4 million to $5 million to companies that meet its strict criteria around environmental and socially sustainable business practices.

“This is not a bank where we are just churning out transactions,” Christine Bascetta-Gath, senior vice president of lending at Walden Mutual, told SFA News Daily. “We are really getting to know our businesses and what we refer to as our borrowing partners on a very deep level, and making sure that we have a complete understanding of their business model and what they are really contributing to the area.”

The bank’s borrowers are situated throughout the food chain. They include small, sustainable farms and other agricultural enterprises, along with the infrastructure that supports them, such as processing facilities and slaughterhouses, as well as CPG makers and a handful of retailers, with several more retailers in the pipeline, and some meal-kit subscription companies.

Walden also supports nonprofits and community organizations that share its mission and values, Bascetta-Gath said.

“We want them to feel welcomed into this ecosystem, simply because we share so much of the same connective tissue,” she said.

All borrowers are asked to participate in Walden’s annual impact assessment, which she said seeks to mirror a B Corp assessment that takes a holistic view toward sustainable business practices. The assessment not only looks at how the company operates from a sustainability perspective but also at the future goals of the enterprise with regard to its impact on the community.

“We look at what Walden can do to partner with you to take you to that next level,” said Bascetta-Gath.

That could include connecting borrowers to other entities within Walden’s ecosystem or offering guidance around finding the resources a company or organization needs to achieve its goals.

“Because we are small, we have the ability to be really high-touch,” she said. “What I love about community banking is that you really are on the ground floor with these businesses. It's really an opportunity to make sure that we are putting our money where our mouth is as far as getting to know our communities.”

Walden Mutual operates primarily as a digital bank but has one physical location in Concord, New Hampshire.

As a mutual bank, Walden is owned by its depositors, who Bascetta-Gath said are a combination of individuals and businesses that support the bank’s mission and values.

“We like to think that there's a whole generation of people out there who are applying pretty rigorous standards on brands that they want to be associated with,” she said. “These are individuals and companies that are trying to make sure that their values are aligned with where they are depositing their funds, and making sure that those funds are contributing to something positive in the market.”

The founder of Walden Mutual, Charley Cummings, created the bank “to help people grow their savings while supporting local farms and businesses daring to do things differently,” according to the bank’s website. He had been the founder and CEO of Walden Local, a sustainable meat company, for eight years before launching the bank.

Bascetta-Gath said many of the companies that Walden Mutual lends money to have historically encountered challenges in accessing capital from the traditional banking system, partly because of a lack of understanding of their business models.

“One of the things that is so great about Walden is that we have a lot of in-house knowledge and expertise from individuals who have been successful in this business,” she said.

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Image: Walden Mutual Bank