One in an occasional series on the demand for locally grown food and its impact on our region.
What started as an effort to bring a farmers market to Strawberry Mansion instead became a socially conscious food-distribution business bringing freshly picked, locally grown produce to schools, hospitals, and workplaces. And now Common Market, launched in 2008, has received the largest grant of its young life - $1.1 million from the Kellogg Foundation.
The not-for-profit, which started with five customers, among them Cooper University Hospital, now has 60-plus customers and works with more than 100 farmers, earning a reputation for treating growers fairly and paying them promptly. The Kellogg grant, spread over two years, will allow Common Market, located at 29th Street and Hunting Park Avenue, to get a cooler, a forklift, and a refrigerated truck, as well as retrofit its space for anticipated changes in federal food-safety regulations, said executive director Tatiana Garcias-Granados, a former investment banker and University of Pennsylvania MBA who left the Wall Street world to live and work in North Philadelphia.
More expansion is already under way. Starting next week, the company is offering affordable baskets of local produce to employees in their workplaces each week - at SEPTA's Market Street offices and at Shire Pharmaceuticals in Wayne.
And in the fall, Common Market will double the number of Philadelphia public schools it serves, from 25 to 50 of the 96 schools that have cafeterias.
"It's clear to us that Common Market is serious about getting affordable, healthy food to families and treating farmers fairly," said Linda Jo Doctor of Kellogg, which was founded by the breakfast-cereal maker and last year gave $360 million to new projects aimed at helping vulnerable children.
"What's so unique about Common Market is that the structure is truly innovative," Doctor said.
Garcias-Granados, 36, is thrilled about the recognition.
"Getting a grant from this respected foundation really validates what we are doing," she said in an interview Tuesday.
Initially, in 2003, she and other community advocates in the East Park Revitalization Alliance thought bringing a farmers market to the neighborhood would suffice to change the way people eat. But when they sought advice from Bob Pierson, a food consultant whose Farm to City business operates local farmers markets, he suggested they focus instead on filling a void in the local food-distribution system.
Sales figures tell part of the story of Common Market's success. In its first year, the company had sales of more than $100,000. It is on track to sell $1 million in 2011.
The other side of the story is Common Market's impact on the community, growers, and the environment.
The company keeps its prices affordable by sharing resources with other community groups. Common Market rents space from and shares a cooler and forklift with the nonprofit SHARE Food Program, which fights hunger by selling healthful food at affordable prices through a network of area community groups.
"Steveanna [Wynn, SHARE director] really believed in our vision and incubated us," Garcias-Granados said.
As a wholesale distributor, Common Market does not compete with farmers. It buys from growers who use sustainable methods of farming, paying them promptly and fairly. The farmers earn, on average, 76 cents on every food dollar when they work with Common Market, Garcias-Granados says, compared with less than 12 cents when they go through conventional distributors, according to recent Agriculture Department figures.
The company has tried to keep its carbon footprint in check by selling produce, grains, and dairy products that travel 100 to 150 miles or less from farm to table, compared with an average of 1,300 miles for conventional food distributors.
Now, though, it is experimenting with buying from regional food hubs farther away.
"The word local has become a kind of shorthand to express more than miles," Garcias-Granados said.
She believes consumers really want to know that they are not buying from a big factory farm thousands of miles away.
Concern for the racial makeup of the farming community factored into the distance question, too, for Garcias-Granados, a native of Guatemala, and her husband, Haile Johnston, who was instrumental in starting Common Market and is of Ethiopian heritage.
"It's always been uncomfortable for us to see white farmers represented as heroes," she said, "when for years, black farmers were discriminated against at the USDA and could not get loans."
(A bias claim brought by African American farmers in 1997 was settled for $1.25 billion in late 2010 and approved by a federal judge in mid-May.)
So Garcias-Granados was especially pleased to receive the first shipment of cabbage and potatoes this week from a cooperative of black growers in North Carolina, even if it is more than 150 miles away.
Meanwhile, Johnston, 38, who grew up in Germantown, was just named one of 14 Food and Community Fellows by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, which is funded in part by Kellogg.
More than 550 individuals applied for the two-year fellowships, which provide an annual stipend of $35,000. The program is for individuals working on food and racial-equity issues.
Johnston, 38, is state director of the Center for Progressive Leadership, a national group founded in 2003 to train future political leaders from diverse groups.
He worked with his wife to create Common Market and serves on the nonprofit's board of directors.
And, as he is certified to drive a forklift, Johnston occasionally helps at the loading dock on delivery days.
"That happens far too often," his wife says.