The Common Market: A Boon for Food Security, Farm Viability and Community Health

Photo courtesy of The Common Market

The Common Market is a nonprofit regional food distributor that seeks to connect communities with food from sustainable farms. Through this, they aim to enhance food security, farm viability, community and ecological health. We had the pleasure of chatting with Jillian Dy, Deputy Director of The Common Market Mid-Atlantic, all about the organization's impactful work, the successes they've experienced since putting down roots in 2008, and their upcoming expansion to the New York City area!

Where did the motivation to start The Common Market stem from, and how did you get involved?

The Common Market was born out of the notion that everyone deserves to have access to good food and that sustainable family farms deserve to be paid fairly. Back in the early 2000s, co-founders Haile and Tatiana were running community-based food programs in Philadelphia, including community gardening and after-school cooking classes. They were struck by the discrepancy between the availability of good food in their neighborhood, and the low cost of locally grown foods in Lancaster County, a large agricultural region just down the road. In fact, many sustainable farmers are low-income themselves.

This disconnect was emblematic of a growing national trend: sustainable farm products were not making it into the cities and communities within half a day's drive of where they're grown - a result of degrading local food infrastructure that was persisting for the past several decades. Haile and Tatiana, being Wharton business school graduates, sought a business solution to this social, economic, and public health problem. They also wanted to stay true to the values - community, diversity, local investment, stewardship and transparency - that they deemed most important, in addition to taking advantage of innovative funding solutions. As a result, the co-founders incorporated The Common Market as a nonprofit, and we've been serving farmers and communities since 2008.

As for myself, I joined The Common Market in 2014 at an inflection point in our growth. My parents, one a surgeon and the other an ER nurse, exposed me to issues relating to health from a young age and my family has always been food-centric. Yet like most children of the '80s, I ate a lot of processed foods growing up. I've spent a fair amount of time contemplating how to incorporate enjoyment, convenience and healthfulness in how I feed myself. Fast forward several years, my pondering led me to start a small farm business selling specialty vegetables to local restaurants and wholesalers. This was my introduction to our current food system, and the experience that laid the foundation for my work at The Common Market.

Why is local, sustainable food important for communities?

Sustainable, local food is important for everyone. Community supported agriculture (CSA) cohorts typically consist of people who can afford to eat healthy and support local food systems. Yet, retention is a huge problem for most farm share programs. This is partly because of an increasingly saturated marketplace but mostly due to a food-related learning curve. (Universally, people simply don't know what to do with kohlrabi or bok choy!)

Knowing where food comes from, how it is grown and by whom lends a greater respect to the planet and the people who grow, package, transport and serve it.

At the same time, hearing backlash against the farm to school movement is common. Arguments against it include that it causes food waste and that serving kids vegetables is a huge waste of money.

Whether it's upper-middle class suburbanites or inner city public school kids, the core problem is the same: people are not eating their vegetables. We can't expect people to change buying or eating habits overnight; a lot of education has to be done and the change that is taking place right now is incremental but crucial.

Local foods have the ability to reconnect people to a sense of place, their community and each other. Knowing where food comes from, how it is grown and by whom lends a greater respect to the planet and the people who grow, package, transport and serve it. Food that is grown with integrity can bring pleasure, sustenance and health all at once. It's regenerative from both an economic and ecological standpoint.

Culturally, we've gravitated away from the pleasures of cooking and most people see it as an inconvenient time suck even if they do have access to a grocery store, which many people do not. The problems are manifold, but it's also a really exciting time to be in the food movement because of the growing collaborations among food-related industries: public health and healthcare, sustainable agriculture, local economies, workforce development and more.

What are anchor institutions, and why are they important for increasing access to local and sustainable food within communities?

Anchor institutions are the major employers, economic drivers and service agents that exist in every city across the country. Hospitals, senior centers, public and private schools, early childcare and universities serve thousands of meals each day and are reaching people where they already are - at work, school and out in the world.

 

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Because of the volume of meals they serve, institutional food service has a tremendous opportunity to contribute to regional food systems and improve community health. People who are recovering from illness need good food to return to health, and some kids in our public school system are getting their only meal at school, often relying on school food programming even through the summer. By procuring and preparing sustainable whole foods, anchor institutions can provide access to good food through their existing service channels.

How does The Common Market benefit both anchor institutions and small farmers?

The Common Market is the single point of connection between regional farmers and the communities they are trying to reach at anchor institutions. Through our infrastructure (trucks, coolers, warehousing) and operational expertise we move safe, delicious farm products throughout the region.

On the farm side, we offer access to markets that farmers may not otherwise be able to reach on their own, thereby growing their business viability. We help small farms scale to become wholesale-ready by preparing them for GAP certification, grants for new infrastructure and crop planning.

 

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For institutions, we provide one convenient list of available products all sourced from farms in our region, source-identified by name, including location and growing practices. In addition to fresh produce, we have local products available year-round including antibiotic-free proteins (chicken, pork, beef and turkey), value-added (canned tomatoes, grains, pickles, spreads, IQF frozen, tofu), dairy and eggs. We also provide marketing tools and metrics to promote their support of local. And of course, we have the food safety protocol and insurance verifications that are a baseline requirement for selling to hospitals and schools.

What successes have you experienced since starting this venture?

We've seen steady growth in our sales - since 2008, we've moved over $16 million of local farm food and reached over 300 institutions and community organizations. In the Mid-Atlantic, all of our farmers are GAP certified and our facility is SQF, Level 2 certified, exceeding the current industry standards for food safety.

Seeing the opportunity to have a greater impact on the health and wealth of both sustainable family farms and marginalized communities, we launched a second location in Atlanta in 2016 that serves the Southeast, and we are planning our third expansion site for 2018. We are actively improving the food system through our work each day, and are continually fine-tuning our operations. Through our geographic expansion and replication, we can share our successful model and connect more rural and urban communities through good food distribution.

Tell us about your expansion to the New York City area.

New York City is the largest food market in the country therefore it's an enormous opportunity to leverage demand and volume to support rural communities and sustainable agriculture. At the same time, there are also more food insecure people in New York than the entire population of Philadelphia, so there is plenty of work to be done.

While New York is well-established from a food policy and programs perspective, there are the same infrastructural and cultural challenges for institutional procurement as in every other major city. We are well-positioned to serve New York institutions from our track record of reliability, quality and service. We are excited to have our first trucks running there as of July 5th!

How has the process of conceptualizing, establishing and expanding upon The Common Market influenced your overall vision for the organization?

The Common Market started small but as we've grown, the model has proven to serve our original intent. We still exist to help sustainable family farms succeed and to provide institutions with good food at a fair price so they may better serve their communities. We envision a future where farmers and communities in a shared geography can have a more tangible connection with one another, improving the health and wealth of all people.

Keep up with The Common Market (especially as they expand to the New York City area!) on TwitterFacebook and Instagram!

 

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