Regional food producers have found a market in Philadelphia through food co-ops, farmers markets and restaurants devoted to providing local food on their menus. Supermarkets such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are also setting geographic limits on where they source their products.
But the amount of food sourced from within the region is still less than the amount shipped in from other parts of the country and from around the world, according to a study by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC).
The study goes on to state that the region is simply too big to feed itself. For those serious about a more sustainable a food system, this may seem like an inadmissible conclusion — which is exactly why the Philadelphia-based food distributor Common Market is working to connect regional food producers with anchor institutions such as hospitals, schools and universities. This has brought local food to a larger base of people through cafeterias, food courts and hospital food systems.
Bridging the Gap
Common Market was founded in 2008 with input from farmers looking to sell wholesale quantities of their products and large institutions interested in becoming more environmentally friendly by sourcing their food from within the region. It has since established itself as a bridge between the two.
“It is simply impractical for large food buyers to maintain relationships with dozens of local producers or for each of those farmers show up at over 100 loading docks every week. Common Market provides an efficient delivery system for these institutions to procure from sustainable farms throughout our region,” said Leah Pillsbury, director of communications for Common Market.
So far in 2013, Common Market purchased from 67 producers and sold to 201 customers, including 16 colleges and universities, 43 public, private and charter schools and nine hospitals. These clients comprise just under 40 percent of Common Market’s sales, according to Pillsbury.
Temple University Hospital, University of the Arts, Moore College of Art and the University of Pennsylvania are just a few of their Philadelphia-based clients.
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A Different Kind of Customer
While these institutions do tend to buy wholesale, bringing more local food into the city, they also have unique needs and concerns. Common Market’s Local Food Sales Manager Molly Johnston-Heck explained that the three biggest concerns for institutions are price, food safety and consistency.
“They need items that are going to be stable. They don’t need, necessarily, specialty vegetables,” Johnston-Heck said. “They need eggs and yogurt, potatoes and onions.”
Christopher Smith, campus executive chef at the University of Pennsylvania, said that working with small producers has not affected his ability to create a consistent menu. He added that buying local does tend to cost more, but that the difference is marginal. In one case, the University ended up spending less on yogurt – a very popular product on campus – once it was buying from producers on a consistent basis.
The University of Pennsylvania’s food service company, Bon Appetit, has been buying food staples from small producers through Common Market and through direct relationships with farmers for nearly five years.
As for food safety, Common Market works with farmers to get Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified. GAP certification is a federal standard for best practices concerning food handling, labor and environmental and animal welfare.
Despite Common Market’s work to reconcile these concerns, the incentive for sourcing local food was really the University’s own agenda to address climate change and become more sustainable.
“About the same time that we brought on Bon Appetit, we launched our climate action plan,” said Barbara Lea-Kruger, director of communications and external relations at the University. “We really wanted our contracted vendors to support that effort.”
(Photos c/o Common Market)