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An Increasingly More Common Market: North Philly Group Sets Bar High for Local Food Distribution

Zoe Lloyd, Haile Johnston, and Tatiana Garcia-Granados of Common Market
Zoe Lloyd, Haile Johnston, and Tatiana Garcia-Granados of Common Market
They are the most beautiful eggs you have ever seen. Presented in a basket in the cafeteria at The William Penn Charter School, these locally produced eggs evoke the color of the sky, of a latte, of cream. This is no industrial food service product. In fact, a good percentage of what's served at Penn Charter is grown right in the Delaware Valley, thanks to the efforts of a fledgling local food distribution business known as Common Market Philadelphia.

It used to be a simple equation. The farmer grows the food. The customer buys the food. Over the past 50 years, the line from farm to table has become so complicated that it takes multiple PowerPoint slides to explain this lengthy, convoluted and invisible process. Common Market, a wholesale food distribution business based in the Hunting Park section of Philadelphia, offers a new model to get local food to institutional customers. Known as a food hub, businesses like Common Market are springing up all over the country.

A nascent industry that's experiencing rapid growth, the food hub concept removes the dozens of steps typically involved in growing, transporting and distributing fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs and grains. Moving from a global to local scale, food hubs create a direct connection between farmers and institutional customers, just as local farmer's markets have revolutionized the way consumers can buy directly from producers. This paradigm shift represents a major reduction in energy use, a marked increase in quality and taste, and the confidence in knowing exactly where your food comes from and how it gets here.

Fifteen Kinds of Chips
Tatiana Garcia-Granados and Haile Johnston, a married couple who are very active in their East Fairmount Park community, were looking for a business idea. Both graduates of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, they saw the potential for an overhaul of the food chain. "We were frustrated by the corner store, which sold 15 different kinds of chips but no fresh fruit," says Garcia-Granados. The push to get a farmer's market in Strawberry Mansion was overshadowed by the realization that the problem was much bigger. During a three-year investigational period funded by a Pennsylvania state grant, Garcia-Granados and Johnston, who is now a board member of Common Market, conducted focus groups with farmers, restaurants, schools, hospitals and caterers, and realized that the wholesale institutional market was in greatest need.

Bob Pierson is Secretary of the Common Market board and founder of Farm to City, an initiative that's created dozens of farmer's markets in Philadelphia neighborhoods. In 2004, Pierson met with Johnston and Garcia-Granados at Reading Terminal Market to talk about an empty warehouse they owned, and how it could best be used to promote large scale distribution of locally sourced food. Pierson points to Common Market's early strategic partnerships with Share, a large non-profit food distribution effort aimed at low-income residents, and White Dog Community Enterprises, a fair food project of White Dog Cafe that had a division known as Farm to Institution. Share provided much needed space, as the original warehouse was insufficient for the scale of operations needed to sustain Common Market; White Dog brought initial clients, according to Pierson.

Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative is another Greater Philadelphia-area group that, like Common Market, is supplying wholesale produce sourced from nearby farms, but, says Garcia-Granados, the difference is that Lancaster Farm Fresh was founded by farmers, with a farm-centric perspective and mission and has a larger distribution area that covers Eastern PA and stretches into New York City.

Hop on the Organic Train
In 2008, Common Market launched, serving Cooper Hospital in Camden and Jefferson University Hospitals. Fast forward to 2011. Common Market, which now employs four packers, two drivers and two administrative staff members in addition to Executive Director Garcia-Granados, now supplies over 100 clients, and projects over $1 million in revenue this year alone. Compared to its first three years, which saw a combined revenue of $1.5 million, Common Market is on a rapid growth trajectory, with customers including The School District of Philadelphia, three school districts in South Jersey, many local private schools, SEPTA and Shire Pharmaceuticals, to name just a few. Common Market has also received operational grants, and is now nationally known for its vanguard business practices.

Not only does Common Market supply institutional kitchens, but it is also doing a pay as you go CSA, in partnership with Farm to City, for employees of those companies. SEPTA and Shire employees make up about 2,500 members who pay either $20 a week or $220 for the whole summer.

Out of the Farm and Into the City
The cycle of week goes like this: every few days a comprehensive availability list is sent to customers. Offerings are identified by supplier, and vary according to season. This week's list includes nearly two dozen different kinds of leafy greens, almost a dozen types of mushrooms, a wide variety of vegetables, fruit, tofu, beef, chicken, fish, grains, cheese, herbs, eggs, beans, canned, frozen and breaded vegetables, and four kinds of locally baked brownies. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Common Market delivers to customers, and Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday are gathering days: some farmers deliver their wares to the facility at 29th and Hunting Park, and Common Market sends trucks to pick up the rest.

A global to local distribution revolution
This remarkably simple process represents a quiet revolution. Across the country, food hubs are springing up. At a recent meeting of the Greater Philadelphia Food System Stakeholder Committee held at the DVRPC, James Barham, an agricultural economist in the Farmers Market and Direct Marketing Research Branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, presented a national picture of local food distribution. The USDA recently launched the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, with a mission to " to carry out President Obama's commitment to strengthening local and regional food systems." Barham reports that his group is now working on a regional food hubs resource guide, and is in the process of tracking down Common Market's counterparts nationwide. "It's a nascent industry," says Barham, whose recent survey reveals that 75 percent of food hubs are less than 10 years old.

It is worth looking at food distribution from a global perspective, and Frank Camp of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority explained the remarkably complex procedure for getting most of what we eat to our tables. We live in a global food economy, with comestibles arriving at the busy Philadelphia port from all over the world. Philadelphia is the number one port in the US for perishables imports, with 1.4 million tons arriving annually. Camp needed two separate slides to explain the long trek from farm to commercial customer. Using Chilean grapes as an example (Philadelphia is the primary port of entry for the national distribution of Chilean grapes): from field harvest, the grapes are packed, trucked to port in Chile, loaded onto a cargo ship for ocean transportation, pass through US Customs and US Inspections before embarking on domestic transportation to a domestic warehouse, which leads to domestic distribution to commercial customers. and finally the grapes arrive at your local SuperFresh. Garcia-Grandos remarks that during this global process, about a hundred people are involved, and about three dozen people have touched the food. This estimate also applies to crops grown domestically in massive agricultural complexes.

In the case of food distribution to schools, hospitals and corporations, another chain of events occurs, involving more trucks, more processing, and an enormous amount of energy expended. Garcia-Granados refers to the big three in the food service world, names that are undoubtedly familiar if you've ever eaten in a corporate cafeteria,school or stadium: Aramark, based in Philadelphia, which serves CHOP; Sodexo, which supplies Temple University; and Compass Group, which provides food services to the University of Pennsylvania. Sysco, another well-known food supplier, provides institutions and restaurants with raw materials like Common Market, but on a grand scale with global sources. Garcia-Granados says Common Market seized an opportunity to service smaller independent customers like The William Penn Charter School.

"It's definitely not your average school cafeteria," says Penn Charter 8th grader Lyndsey Bentham. "The kitchen staff makes us aware that we are eating local-grown food."

Season of the Parsnip
Joe Ginder is Director of Food Services at Penn Charter, which contracts CulinArt, a privately owned catering company, to staff the school cafeteria. "When I started with CulinArt eight years ago, we had 64 accounts," says Ginder, and now it's over 200." Ginder buys at least 15 percent of the school's food from Common Market, and on a recent day, 75 percent of the menu's ingredients had been sourced via Common Market. "The CFO of the school told me to purchase as much as possible, as often as possible" from local farms, says Ginder. Asked about cost, Ginder says that indeed, there is a differential, but there is no comparison when approaching it from a quality standpoint; portions may be slightly smaller, but still perfectly adequate.

One other challenge is working with the seasons. Throughout the winter, Ginder relies on root vegetables and hardy leafy greens, but also uses hothouse produce as well as frozen and canned foods to get through the coldest months. "Our weekly menu reflects what's available geographically," says Ginder, who adds that the kids are pretty tired of parsnips by March.

Farm to City's Bob Pierson cites the Lawrenceville School, near Princeton, NJ, as a pioneer in retooling the entire cafeteria system to make up for the higher cost of local organic products. Cost cutting efforts included keeping ovens off until needed, and having students bus their own trays, which led to yet another, perhaps unexpected, way to cut costs. "When students saw the waste, they stopped taking such big portions. Lawrenceville took a total systems approach."

Down on the Farm
Heading south in New Jersey, one of Common Market's suppliers is A.T. Buzby Farm, which provides Garden State goodness to Common Market customers. It's a family affair. Dawn Buzby says that the farm has no retail operation on site, but sets up regularly at Headhouse Square and runs a CSA with 100 members. "We're excited about Common Market. Our stuff is staying local," says Buzby. "It's a good feeling to farm where your products are getting used." Buzby reports that Common Market, which picks up twice a week from the Salem County, NJ farm, about 40 minutes from Center City, is careful about handling produce. "People in general are becoming very aware of environmental issues, and are making decisions on how their actions impact the economy," says Buzby.

"There's a growing knowledge among purchasers and farmers that working together is good for everyone," Buzby, adds, saying supporting local farming is good for the environment, the watersheds and aquifers, and better than having all the food shipped in. She adds that knowing where your produce comes from increases food safety.

Common Market is not yet a common name in the Delaware Valley, even though its growing list of customers means you may be enjoying the literal fruits of the company's labor without even knowing it. Garcia-Granados, who attributes the company's growth to word of mouth. About three months ago, Common Market tested the waters, reaching out to a small group, and now counts every lead as a new customer. Also, Common Market has made small inroads into the Big Three, now selling to Compass Group, which turns around and offers its clients local produce. The field is wide open for Common Market, with a potentially massive roster of buyers, the only limit being supply. Yet, it is possible to envision a future where local vacant land turns fertile, and a new generation of farmers will grow food literally next door to those who eat it.

SUE SPOLAN is Innovation and Job News editor for Flying Kite. Send feedback here.

PHOTOS:

Zoe Lloyd, Haile Johnston, and Tatiana Garcia-Granados of Common Market

Clockwise from top left: Greg Buzby, Jim Daily, fresh Buzby strawberries, and Dallas Duffield of Buzby Farm in Salem County, N.J.


Penn Charter Director of Dining Services Joe Ginder and Executive Chef Barry Glass serve lunch built around fresh options from Common Market 

Milk from Merrymead Farm in Lansdale; veggies, beef, and wheat for pizza from Common Market; strawberries from Buzby Farm, and Pequea Valley Yogurt

Fresh roasted potatoes at Penn Charter

All photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO
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