Photo via Philly Foodworks website
The question of whether local food can be financially viable has another, often neglected, concern. What is the best way to bring local food to the market?
Philly Foodworks is attempting to answer that question by building a distribution system that sources from multiple small producers, including urban farmers, and connects them to the entire Philadelphia marketplace. It does this through a mix of community supported agriculture (CSA), an online food marketplace, a farmers market, and buying clubs in low-income communities.
Origins of Philly Foodworks
The original purpose of the business, said Dylan Baird, co-founder of Philly Foodworks, was to “help build a distribution system that would help small producers like our ourselves sell their product and build their business.”
The three founders of Philly Foodworks — Baird, Jamel Bell and Ryan Witmer — are former Urban Tree Connection employees. Baird noted that he became acquainted with the local food economy during his time at the West Philadelphia-based nonprofit, where he helped start urban farms, farmers markets and a CSA program.
They decided to start their own venture after winning a Temple University business plan competition last April for their idea. The prize money provided much of the start-up capital.
Since then, the company has entered into relationships with two urban farm networks in Philadelphia, four farms in Lancaster County (managed under a single hub), and three farms in Berks County, New Jersey.
Sourcing From Local Urban Farms
Philly Foodworks’ rule for sourcing food is that it must come from within a 150 mile radius of Philadelphia. Currently, all of the farms it buys from are well within those limits. In addition, one of the company’s biggest selling points is how much it sources from urban farms within the city.
“25 percent of what we sell is guaranteed to be from the city,” Baird said. “That’s drastically more than any other CSA.”
But Philly Foodworks is not buying from the small community-managed farms that speckle the city. Instead, it has made a point to work with farms that are larger and more organized for the sake of consistency and price.
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Urban Tree Connection, for example, is one Philly Foodwork’s biggest customers and also one of the largest farm networks in the city. It manages five farms, ranging from an acre to an eighth of an acre in size, all of which sell to Philly Foodworks. In effect, Urban Tree Connection is scaling its selling power by connecting multiple farms with a single distributor.
“Nobody has proven nationally that small urban farms can be financially sustainable,” said Skip Wiener, executive director of Urban Tree Connection and former mentor to Baird and the other co-founders. “We are trying to prove that.”
Wiener also noted that this model really emphasizes the producer, further connecting customer and farm. “People who buy from [Philly Foodworks] really understand that they are buying from us,” he said.
Philly Foodworks just gave a $23,000 prepayment to Urban Tree Connection, money that came from people buying CSA packages.
The other urban farm that Philly Foodworks buys from is Heritage Farm, managed by Methodist Home for Children, which is located just outside Fairmount Park. Baird said that the 3-acre farm is one of the most organized farms in the city.
Both these local producers will contribute to the same CSA packages. So when Philly Foodworks’ customers open their first box of produce for the season, they will see produce sourced from across the region — and maybe not far from their own neighborhood.
“We are definitely asking the question of ‘what is urban farming’s role in the regional food system?'” Baird said. “And there are very few people in the food movement who are asking that question.”
For more on how Philly Foodworks CSA program, check out this step-by-step breakdown of how it works.-30-
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