In 2020, The Common Market, a Philadelphia-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) grantee, found a way to distribute 1.1 million emergency food boxes and at the same time support the viability of 132 family farms. All of this in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout, or what co-founder Haile Johnston refers to as a “natural disaster.”
The Common Market was launched in 2008 by Johnston and his wife, Tatiana Garcia-Granados. The organization has grown to work with more than 900 community partners across three regions. They connect underserved communities with food from sustainable family farms. Locally grown food moves through The Common Market’s networks in the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast and the state of Texas.
Their adaptation during the pandemic reflects this focus on relationships and their lifelong connections with food.
Rooted at home
Garcia-Granados was raised on her father’s vegetable farm in Guatemala. When deals went bad or market downturns affected their business, the family kitchen filled with surplus tomatoes and broccoli. Similarly, Johnston, born in Philadelphia, fondly remembers his father waking him up early on weekends to drive into Pennsylvania’s countryside. They’d fill their car with pumpkins and fruit to sell in city neighborhoods that didn’t have ready access to fresh food.
As a young married couple, back in 2003, they moved to Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, attracted to the historic Black community, once the home of artists like John Coltrane. At the time Johnston and Garcia-Granados settled in, families of means had moved out. While the culture remained, the lives of everyday people were impacted by blight, vacancy and poverty.
“We wanted to work alongside our neighbors to make it a place people would want to stay,” explains Johnston.
Working as part of a neighborhood community development organization, they engaged young people in projects to beautify the neighborhood’s vacant lots – cleaning up, planting flowers and growing vegetables. Eventually their neighborhood team maintained 14-plus acres of non-contiguous vacant land in Strawberry Mansion – and gained a window into another layer of the community’s challenges.
“As we got to know the youth’s families we started to understand how diet-related disease and disease disparity were impacting their ability to transcend generational poverty,” Johnston explains “Our analysis was, functionally, people can’t get ahead because they’re suffering from heart disease or diabetes – and all these things are related to the quality of food that is brought into our community.”
A field trip with their team led to an a-ha moment that changed their futures. “By chance we stumbled upon a big agricultural auction about an hour away in a rural area,” Garcia-Granados remembers. “And while we were there, we realized it’s not just communities like ours that are disconnected from healthy food. There are all these small family farmers who don’t have access to markets – they’re at the mercy of this auction system.”
Recognizing the disconnect between these two communities was the starting point for The Common Market: bringing the fruits and vegetables produced on small farms to communities like theirs.
Preserving dignity during an emergency
Under normal conditions, The Common Market’s food goes to early childhood education centers, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and prisons – institutions big enough to order large quantities. They aggregate the products of small- and medium-scale farmers in the process.
But in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
As Johnston puts it, “Produce was already coming out of the ground,” when early childhood education centers closed their doors and cafeterias in nursing homes, hospitals and prisons shut down. The Common Market’s farming partners had planned their crops with these institutions in mind.
Their challenge was to strategize how to keep their commitments to the farmers and urban communities they serve.
Then came a request for proposals from New York City, the first community to be hit hard by the coronavirus. The city was looking for something called pantry boxes. The folks at The Common Market assumed they wanted a traditional approach to emergency food distribution – shelf-stable items that often aren’t the healthiest options. Even so, they gave it a chance – and their proposal for farm-fresh boxes was accepted. A similar contract with the city of Atlanta followed, along with a grant to distribute through the Central Texas Food Bank
The Common Market’s Farm-Fresh Box Program offered individualized boxed fruits, vegetables, baked goods and dairy products that could be distributed safely while people were sheltered in place.
Feedback from those who received the boxes encouraged The Common Market to expand their program.
Janice from New York City wrote: “I am in my 60s and live in Jackson Heights in New York City, in what is now the deadliest area of the Earth due to the coronavirus. I remain healthy, but don’t wish to walk outside…But, yesterday your box came with fresh bread, dried beans, potatoes, a beet, kale, luscious, canned crushed tomatoes and cheddar cheese.
Preserving dignity during an emergency
With this kind of encouragement, The Common Market sought and won contracts with the USDA, starting with $5.7 million in May and another $7.6 million in August. Farm-fresh produce and dairy boxes made their way from mid-Atlantic farms to communities throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C. and from southeastern farms through Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. The need grew so rapidly that The Common Market not only fulfilled all their commitments to farmers, they ended up seeking out new relationships beyond their network.
The farmers who work with The Common Market took pride in offering emergency relief.
“Knowing we are a part of the solution to feed those trapped in New York,” wrote Steven P. Frecon, a farmer in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, “makes all the stress worth it. It makes me proud and makes me feel our work is meaningful.”
He added: “The Common Market partnership helps keep our farm viable, kept employees working while millions of Americans were unemployed and distributed our fruit to those in need. This is why we farm.”
Howard Berk, owner of Ellijay Mushrooms in Ellijay, Georgia, wrote: “The Common Market has given us a lifeline in these uncertain times.”
Crossing boundaries, creating connection
WKKF Program Officer Linda Jo Doctor remembers meeting Johnston at a convening years ago and listening to the initial vision. “At the time, he and other community partners were aspiring to create a wholesale distribution system with racial equity at the core – farmers, including farmers of color, would get paid upfront while they watched pricing to make sure it was accessible to communities.”
The Common Market approach reflects the interconnections between food production, health and livelihood within communities, and the well-being of children and families.
“And Tatiana and Haile are extraordinary thought partners,” she says. “They stay principled and leverage opportunities as much possible. They’re highly regarded as leaders in the field.”
And because of how The Common Market operates, they were able to pivot and respond to the extraordinary challenges presented during the past year.