Throw open the bay doors to Common Market’s 70,000-square-foot warehouse facility in North Philadelphia and you’re apt to see a hive of activity: workers wheeling loaded pallet jacks toward waiting trucks, others counting cases of yogurt, sorting crates of spinach, taking phone orders, going over delivery checklists.
A large, refrigerated box truck pulls away from a loading dock with peppers, beans and lettuce, on its way to Jefferson University Hospital, Wissahickon Charter School and Mariposa Food Co-op.
This is one moment in one day for nonprofit, regional food distributor Common Market, a social enterprise that connects local, sustainably grown food to people throughout the Philadelphia region, including many who lack access to fresh food.
Strawberry Mansion is one of the Philadelphia’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Its predominantly African-American residents face high rates of poverty, unemployment and diet-related disease.
When Tatiana Garcia-Granados and Haile Johnston moved to Strawberry Mansion in 2002 to raise their family, they joined a community where, as Johnston puts it, “a bag of chips and a soda is easier to find at the corner store than a piece of fresh fruit.”
The couple, both graduates of University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, recognized the lack of access to fresh, nutritious food as one of the principle causes of the health challenges facing their community. They also came to understand that many small and mid-sized family farms in their region were struggling to survive.
Working with a coalition of community businesses and organizations, Garcia-Granados and Johnston launched Common Market in 2008 to rebuild the infrastructure and relationships that once linked local farms to local communities, with a deep commitment to equity.
Reaching underserved communities through large institutions
Today, Common Market connects more than 200 mid-Atlantic institutions, businesses and community organizations to 75 family farmers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Sales have grown from $600,000 in 2010 to $1.7 million in 2013, with 25 percent of it reaching institutions serving low-income communities and communities of color.
Supplying institutions such as schools and hospitals has been the key to Common Market’s uncommon success at reaching large numbers of low-income children and families. Working with large institutions also has enabled Common Market to grow to operational scale.
“We knew we needed to move a tremendous amount of product to pay for ourselves and to have impact on both the farm side and community side,” says Johnston. Common Market serves retail grocers, runs a thriving farm share program and has its own brand, “Delaware Valley Grown,” but its institutional business remains at the core.
Changing the food system is about more than numbers
At the Wissahickon Charter School, where 81 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price meals, students eat lunch family style, at round tables set with plates, silverware, napkins and water glasses. The food is real, prepared on site, much of it local, frequently supplied by Common Market.
Although the school emphasizes environmental ethics, its meals used to be wrapped in plastic and served on a Styrofoam tray. It was the students who kept pointing out the incongruity, prompting co-leaders Kristi Littell and Jamal Elliot to transform not only the food but mealtime itself. Thanks to Common Market, Littell might be heard to say in her morning announcement: “Today, we have Jonagold apples from Weaver Farm, just 20 minutes away.”
Growing beyond financial sustainability
In 2013, Common Market moved from leased space to a warehouse of its own. Located in a neighborhood near Strawberry Mansion, the facility includes the “Philly Good Food Lab,” a shared space for like-minded food enterprises and social entrepreneurs.
With more storage space, Common Market has begun forging alliances with growers in neighboring regions to extend the season for fresh produce. Another approach, which Johnston refers to as “frozen local,” involves corn, green beans and spinach, grown by two family farms in South Jersey and frozen by a small processor nearby.
Thanks in large measure to the new facility, Common Market and its 18 employees – 11 of them people of color – will move $2.5 million of food in 2014. It won’t be long before Common Market becomes a self-sustaining enterprise, generating more sales revenue than its cost of supply and operations.
In Strawberry Mansion, Garcia-Granados and Johnston see signs their work is paying off. “No longer does the cliché of kids not knowing what good food is apply to our community,” says Johnston.
He recalls barbecuing across from a neighborhood garden. Three teenagers came by asking for hotdogs. He was grilling asparagus. “Oooh, I want some!” said one of the teens. “They ate most of our asparagus,” Johnston says. It’s hard to tell whether he was pleased or chagrinned. Probably a little of both.
Download a case study on Common Market.