Common Market delivers in distributing local

Common Market cofounders Haile Johnston and his wife Tatiana Garcia-Grandados in the warehouse on East Erie Avenue in North Philadelphia.
Common Market cofounders Haile Johnston and his wife Tatiana Garcia-Grandados in the warehouse on East Erie Avenue in North Philadelphia. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 28, 2014

Haile Johnston and his wife, Tatiana Garcia-Granados, never set out to change the world. Just their neighborhood.

But since moving to Strawberry Mansion in 2002, these University of Pennsylvania Wharton School grads have set up summer camps and after-school programs, planted hundreds of trees and flowers, and promoted farmer's markets and food pantries, all of which led to this bigger challenge:

How to bring reasonably priced, seasonal food, responsibly grown by local farmers, to hospitals, schools, small groceries, churches, and workplaces across the Philadelphia region?

"It's all about distribution, about connecting markets and farms," said Johnston, 40.

That's the idea behind Common Market, a wholesale food distribution system created in 2008 by Johnston, Garcia-Granados, and Bob Pierson, founder/president of Farm to City, which runs 18 farmer's markets in the Philadelphia region.

It works like this: Common Market picks up directly from farmers or from a centrally located, regional drop-off point. Larger farms make their own deliveries to the nonprofit's North Philadelphia warehouse. There, customers' orders are assembled, packed, and loaded onto Common Market trucks for delivery.

The hub approach simplifies an impossibly complex proposition. "Hospitals and schools can't be getting deliveries from 20 different farmers and 20 different pickup trucks," said Garcia-Granados, 39.

The venture has seen uncommonly robust growth.

In its first year, Common Market had 22 customers, a dozen farmers, and sales of $108,000. In 2014, it has 212 customers, 80 farmers within 150 miles of the city, and projected sales of $2.2 million. And there are 600 products - not just fruits and vegetables, but dairy items, maple syrup, honey, jams, beans, grains, turkey, and chicken.

Common Market has enjoyed equally hearty financial support from, among others, the state and federal governments and foundations (Barra, Claneil, Kellogg). Now, the Philadelphia law firm of Ballard Spahr has committed $850,000 over 10 years to help Common Market grow. In return, Ballard Spahr gets a write-off on its city business income and receipts tax, formerly the business privilege tax.

The arrangement falls under a 2001 economic development incentive program that City Council amended in 2013 to encourage corporate support for healthy food initiatives.

The firm's Philadelphia office, one of 14 across the country, already was doing Common Market's legal work when Johnston approached pro bono counsel Mary Gay Scanlon last fall about going deeper.

"It was really nice timing for us because we'd started noticing in our pro bono program that we had a lot of people around the country doing things around food and hunger, and sustainable food and nutrition," she said.

The donation's size and duration affords Common Market flexibility, stability, and leverage for future grants, Johnston said, calling it "a rare gift."

The program is an acknowledgment by Ballard Spahr and the city that "those of us trying to get healthy food into the city are doing good work," said Steveanna Wynn, executive director of the SHARE Food Program, which stocks 500 pantries for low-income residents in Philadelphia.

Before Common Market, Wissahickon Charter School - an environmentally-focused K-8 where 81 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches - served reheated, packaged meals on Styrofoam trays. "Our kids were learning about healthy eating and sustainability . . . then they'd go to the cafeteria and get a totally mixed message," CEO Kristina P. Littell said.

Now, the kids' diet is about 65 percent local. Meals are prepared on site, served on plates, "and when you ask them what their favorite fruit is, they don't just say 'apple.' They say 'I love a Honeycrisp,' " she said.

Between state reimbursements and students who buy their lunch, Wissahickon breaks even on food. But the school has had to hire staff to run the upgraded cafeteria.

"That takes a dip into our budget," Littell said, "but we've decided it's worth it."

At Independence Blue Cross in Center City, about 26 employees in winter, 50 in summer, receive eight to 10 pounds of food every two weeks. Participants range from rank-and-file to senior executives. Cost: $27 per delivery.

"This will turn a diehard anti-veggie person into a produce-loving person, for sure," said wellness coordinator Janine A. Brandolo.

Curt Fifer, a fourth-generation farmer at Fifer Orchards in Dover, Del., who was recruited by Common Market in 2011, saw his orders double over the last year. "I think they understand the farmer well, and I really enjoy working with them," Fifer said. "We're growing with them."

In 2013, having outgrown Common Market's first home, in SHARE's Hunting Park facility, Johnston and Garcia-Granados bought the former Cardone auto parts factory at D Street and Erie Avenue for $1.1 million. Suddenly, they had 73,000 square feet, with plenty of room to grow.

And just as SHARE once shared with it, Common Market now is providing incubator space for a bread-baker and a mushroom grower.

As for where all this will lead, Johnston and Garcia-Granados - already working up to 80 hours a week while raising three young children - are committed to expanding their enterprise and teaching others how to start one.

They're advising local-food advocates in Alabama, California, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri. A delegation from Romania was expected last week.


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