Ep.21: Restoring Access to Local Farm Food

Tatiana Garcia Granados started The Common Market to bring farm food to her Philadelphia neighborhood. Now she's taking on the nation's broken food distribution system.

The Story Exchange By The Story Exchange

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Tatiana Garcia Granados started The Common Market to make sure her neighbors in the Strawberry Mansion section of Philadelphia could access local strawberries and other farm fresh products. Now she wants to use its business model, which reconnects regional farms to urban centers, to repair the nation’s broken food distribution system.

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SUE: (as music plays lightly in the background) You’re listening to Good on the Ground...

VARIOUS VOICES: ...Good on the Ground...

COLLEEN: ...You’re listening to Good on the Ground from The Story Exchange.

TATIANA: We see Common Market as an important role in rebuilding that regional food infrastructure so that small farmers can actually get their food to market at an affordable price.

SUE (from tape): You know, I buy blueberries from Fresh Direct in New York, and they’re coming from Guatemala and I’m like, “How does that even make sense?”

TATIANA: But it’s cheaper. That’s what so crazy, yeah.

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: Hi, I’m Colleen DeBaise.

SUE: And I’m Sue Williams.

COLLEEN: This is the Story Exchange. And that voice you just heard is entrepreneur Tatiana Garcia Granados of The Common Market, and she was talking to us about...

SUE: ...the broken food distribution system in this country…

COLLEEN: ...which she is trying to fix.

SUE: No biggie.

COLLEEN: Yeah, she’s clearly an underachiever!

SUE: But for all you listeners who wonder why the apples in your grocery store come from New Zealand...

COLLEEN: ...instead of the struggling family-owned farm that’s maybe 20 miles away...

SUE: ...we’re spending this episode delving into the problem.

COLLEEN: And talking with someone trying to solve it, starting in her Philadelphia community.

SUE: She’s doing “Good on the Ground,” using the power of business...

COLLEEN: ...to tackle one of today’s most pressing social issues.

SUE: If you want to hear how one person can make a difference, give this podcast a listen.

*Musical Interlude*

SOT: (rooster and farm noises)

COLLEEN: Wait, wait, wait, that’s not actually the sound we’re going to hear yet.

SUE: Our story begins NOT in the rural countryside but actually urban Philadelphia --

COLLEEN: -- specifically, the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. Here’s Tatiana.

TATIANA: My husband and I discovered this amazing neighborhood and we were able to buy a house.

SUE: The neighborhood was once home to jazz musician John Coltrane.

TATIANA: And we fixed it up and it’s right near the park and it’s this beautiful old historic house.

COLLEEN: This was back in 2002. Tatiana was just finishing up her MBA at University of Pennsylvania’s elite Wharton School.

TATIANA: Yeah, and we fell in love with the neighborhood. And as we were spending more and more time there, we also became aware of how much need there was.

SUE: The neighborhood is charming, with colorful murals and a tight-knit family feel.

TATIANA: It was a neighborhood that like, in the Fifties the African Americans, when they started to have more opportunities, and the Great Migration, moved into this neighborhood.

COLLEEN: But by the early 2000s, there was a lot of blight.

TATIANA: So this was around the time when the, the Mayor of Philadelphia had this big initiative to demolish the abandoned houses. Once you’ve gotten rid of these eye sore problem houses there’s just a lot. And so the question was what do you do with these lots.

SUE: Tatiana and her husband, Haile Johnston, started a nonprofit with the goal of bringing resources like community gardens into their neglected neighborhood.

TATIANA: I mean, we started really small by just doing gardens with the kids in the neighborhood and connecting with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

COLLEEN: Things soon snowballed.

TATIANA: One of the most popular activities that we did with the, with the kids was healthy cooking classes.

SUE: At one point, they had 80 kids enrolled.

TATIANA: We would take four or five kids on the bus downtown to the public market, buy food from the farmers and bring it back to the rec center and then cook these huge feasts on, you know, burners on tables. And the kids loved it.

COLLEEN: The public market Tatiana is referring to is the Reading Terminal Market, famous in downtown Philly.

TATIANA: For the kids growing up in Strawberry Mansion it’s really eye opening for them to, you know, take a short bus ride downtown and to just see all, you know, all of those colors and flavors, and smells.

SUE: But after a few months, Tatiana realized something.

TATIANA: You know, this is kind of crazy. Like, there’s no, if the kids want to actually teach their parents or take what they’re learning home and prepare food for their families, there’s no place in our neighborhood where they can buy this food.

COLLEEN: Like many city neighborhoods, Strawberry Mansion has a lot of corner shops.

SUE: We call them bodegas, here in New York.

COLLEEN: Yeah, exactly. It’s the type of places that sell potato chips and a lot of processed foods.

SUE: But not fresh fruits or vegetables.

COLLEEN: Yeah. And unlike, say, a gentrifying urban neighborhood with affluent white residents...

SUE: ...Brooklyn comes to mind...

COLLEEN: Yeah. You don’t see big green grocers moving in.

TATIANA: We’re relying so much on markets and then when, when you have pockets of either, you know, low density or high poverty, there’s no incentive for people to create supermarkets --

COLLEEN: -- think Safeway, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s --

TATIANA: -- or, you know, other interventions that would get healthy food into the communities.

SUE: As a newly minted MBA, Tatiana decided to investigate the problem. How could she get fresh fruit and vegetables into her neighborhood?

COLLEEN: What frustrated her was the knowledge that not far from Strawberry Mansion’s gritty streets...

SUE: ...within a 100-mile radius or often less...

COLLEEN: ...Wait for it...

SOT: (rooster and farm sounds)

COLLEEN: In Pennsylvania’s nearby rolling countryside, there were plenty of family farms producing...

TATIANA: ...the eggs, and the grains, and, and of course the fruits and vegetables that everyone thinks of when you hear “local food.”

SUE: But here’s the problem.

TATIANA: Our agricultural system has just become bigger and bigger. And so, so it’s cheaper to get a truckload of food from California than it is to get a pallet from Upstate New York to New York City.

COLLEEN: What Tatiana is talking about here...

SUE: Yes?

COLLEEN: ...is the consolidation, basically, that has happened over the last 75 years or so in U.S. agriculture and food distribution.

SUE: According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, about 8% of farms account for more than 60% of agriculture sales.

COLLEEN: Right. That means a small number of large farm operations really dominate.

SUE: Exactly. The system now favors big players -- giant farms, mass retail -- so the old infrastructure, which used to connect small grocery stores and local farmers, is terribly broken.

TATIANA: Our system is just so built on big. I mean, there’s that, that line about “get big or, or get out” in the Fifties. And so everything in our agriculture just grew in that, in that way.

COLLEEN: In 2008, Tatiana, her husband Haile and a longtime advocate of farmers markets named Bob Pierson began working on an ambitious project...

SUE: ...they named it The Common Market...

COLLEEN: ...to rebuild the regional food infrastructure.

TATIANA: The Common Market is a nonprofit distributor of local farm food. We make the connection between local farms in our region to the institutions and get the food into the communities that need the food the most.

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: We’ve been sharing the story of Tatiana Garcia Granados, who -- by the way -- grew up on a farm in Guatemala.

SUE: Yes, her family came here to this country in 1981.

COLLEEN: Tatiana grew up with things like fresh coconuts and so she wanted her family -- and others in Strawberry Mansion -- to have the same access to fresh produce.

SUE: Not just because it tastes good, but because it’s critical to public health. More than 40% of Philadelphia’s children are overweight or obese.

COLLEEN: We have some tape of Tatiana and her husband speaking at Innovation IdeaLab, a series at WGBH in Boston, about how they envision The Common Market connecting two marginalized groups. Here’s Haile Johnston...

HAILE: On one side you have multi-generational sustainable family farms that are disappearing at alarming rates largely because of lack of access to fair and transparent markets.

COLLEEN: And then on the other side...

HAILE: Just an hour-and-a-half down the road in communities like Strawberry Mansion, you have people who are suffering from diet-related disease at astounding rates, really because good food just doesn’t exist.

COLLEEN: So the fundamental vision for The Common Market is...

HAILE: How can we connect these two communities, how can we really create relationships, through trade of good food, in a way that brings back health and wealth to our region?

SUE: The solution they came up with is impressive.

TATIANA: We have a 50,000-square foot warehouse in North Philadelphia with giant, five zones of different temperatures of refrigeration. About half of the food that we sell is delivered by the farmers and then another half is coming in on our truck. So we have a fleet of five trucks that’s, that’s out, you know, six days a week. They pick up at some farms and bring that product back.

SUE: We shot a video at the warehouse -- you can watch it at thestoryexchange.org -- and it’s a flurry of activity. One farmer and his son arrive with a truck full of eggs fresh that morning, workers are loading pallets, sorting crates of vegetables and fruit in the huge cold storage rooms, and scanning items on their computerized inventory system.

TATIANA: And then our staff packs the orders and then the, the trucks are loaded and then they leave early in the morning to make deliveries to all the, the loading docks like at schools and hospitals.

COLLEEN: Note that she said schools and hospitals. Like any good MBA, Tatiana figured out that a key to solving the regional distribution problem is scale.

TATIANA: In order to make the food accessible and affordable it needs to be at a volume that can actually, you know, have efficiencies and start to bring some, the prices down.

SUE: While Tatiana would still like to see her corner shops filled with fresh food, it’s simply not cost-effective for local farmers to supply mini markets with small batches of produce.

TATIANA: Farmers are, they’re low-income, too, and they need to get a fair price for what they’re growing and it’s not going to work, if we have low-income farmers trying to serve low-income consumers.

COLLEEN: Instead, The Common Market gets into vendor deals with big food-service companies, like Sodexo and Aramark, which in turn supply the city’s institutional buyers.

TATIANA: So working with institutions is a really important part of our theory of change because it achieves our mission on both sides. One, it creates a market for our farmers because the, you know, their orders are larger. Like a hospital or a public school is making a larger order. And then also they’re typically working with some of the more marginalized people in our society, right, and so we’re able to, you know, make sure that the food is getting really to everyone.

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: We mentioned earlier that Tatiana co-founded The Common Market back in 2008.

TATIANA: When we started it we, we really bootstrapped it.

COLLEEN: Today, the Common Market delivers fresh farm food from 80 local farms to hospitals, workplaces and 26 charter schools, reaching 14,000 kids in the Philadelphia area.

SUE: That’s really impressive.

COLLEEN: It is. Here’s Tatiana speaking at WGBH, Boston, about the Common Market’s impact.

TATIANA: Today, it’s really nice to walk into some of the public urban schools we work with and to see kids enjoying apples from local orchards. And they’re not just apples to the kids -- they’re Granny Smiths or they’re Stayman-Winesaps and everybody has a favorite variety.

COLLEEN: Those are smart kids!

SUE: Yes, pretty discerning! But what The Common Market is trying to do is democratize access to good food -- while creating new opportunities for farmers.

COLLEEN: Yeah. It’s really no easy task, particularly when you think about the logistics involved.

TATIANA: You need to have a refrigerated warehouse space. You need to have refrigerated trucks. You need very expensive assets in order to do this, and even at a, you know, a larger scale the, the profit margins are really thin.

SUE: Like many of the entrepreneurs in our Good on the Ground series, Tatiana chose to structure the Common Market as a 501c3 nonprofit.

TATIANA: We’re able to get grants for capital and then we’re also able to, to tap into low-interest or friendly loans.

COLLEEN: The Common Market also generates revenue -- when it buys food from farmers, it marks it up before selling it wholesale to buyers.

TATIANA: You really need to get to a certain scale before you can break even. For us that break even point was $1.7 million. We reached that three years ago, after five years in operation.

COLLEEN: The success has prompted Tatiana and her team --

SUE: -- she now has 35 employees --

COLLEEN: -- to expand nationwide, starting in Atlanta.

TATIANA: And it’s the same model of building the regional food system there and the farmland is in South Georgia and Alabama.

SUE: They already supply Emory and Georgia Tech universities and 12 hospitals.

COLLEEN: And now, Tatiana is doing her due diligence, looking to expand to New York, Chicago and the Central Texas area.

TATIANA: One of the big, the big challenges right now is trying to go from being a, you know, a pretty small, lean start-up based in Philadelphia in one location. And by going national, how do we also replicate the culture, the strong culture that we have here?

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: The growth still surprises Tatiana, who was just thinking about bringing fresh food into Strawberry Mansion when she started.

SUE: She wasn’t trying to solve a national problem. But now, she very well might.

TATIANA: What I love most is just seeing how it’s grown from a very simple idea, and talking with Bob Pierson and Haile all those years ago, and when it was really just kind of wacky, and out there, and nobody understood, you know, why it was so important to today.

COLLEEN: Our thanks to Tatiana Garcia Granados of The Common Market.

SUE: Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would. This has been The Story Exchange.

COLLEEN: If you liked this podcast, please share on social media and post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.

Posted: June 20, 2017

The Story ExchangeEp.21: Restoring Access to Local Farm Food