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American Voices: Haile Johnston

This week’s American Voices is from Haile Johnston, founder of Common Market in Philadelphia, PA. His organization’s mission is to create easier ways for low-income urban neighborhoods to get access to affordable, nutritious, and sustainably-produced foods from local farms in nearby rural areas.

Common Market is a nonprofit, local food distribution company, and we got started basically in response to the struggles that a lot of communities were having, accessing good food. Part of the vision of Common Market was actually to make local and sustainably grown food more affordable and accessible to all.  It is an exciting time in a lot of ways, because there’s a lot of creativity and innovations happening around re-envisioning what the food system looks like, and re-envisioning regional economies.

One of the reasons why you see natural foods and organic foods in the market being far more expensive is the system for getting that food into the marketplace is relatively inefficient in many cases.  When we started out, the distribution — that used to connect farmers and communities was gone.  The — these relationships that used to — nourish both sides of the food chain no longer existed.  So, we saw an opportunity to actually reestablish some of these relationships through distribution, connecting small sustainable family farms, with communities.

We have relationships with nearly 100 farms in the Delaware Valley region.  We sell directly to hospitals, schools, elder care facilities.  Colleges and universities.  Retailers.  So, everything from small specialty retailers to food cooperatives.  To larger supermarkets that have been the beneficiaries of the fresh food financing initiative, to build supermarkets in food deserts. And we’re actually trying to demonstrate to the business community that neighborhoods like ours — low income communities in — in urban areas, as well as in rural areas, are not communities that should be ignored.

In the last year, we sold to over 100 schools.  So, we were the farm-to-school supplier for about 65 public schools in our region as well as about 20 private schools.  And a number of colleges and universities. And we’ve experienced– pretty tremendous growth in the four short years that we’ve been in business.  We’ve been growing at about 80% a year.  This year, we’ll sell about $1.7 million of food.  And we’ve been growing so fast that we’ve outgrown our facility where we’re located.  Where I see great opportunity is actually for, again, reestablishing these relationships between rural producing communities and urban consumers in ways that are mutually beneficial.