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The Common Market’s Mission-Driven Response to COVID-19 Nourishes Communities

NFSN Staff Thursday, April 23, 2020

Photo credit for all images in this blog belong to The Common Market
By Jenileigh Harris, NFSN Program Associate

When the coronavirus started to spread rapidly throughout New York City in early March, Janice, a woman in her sixties from Jackson Heights signed up for a free food delivery service operated by New York City. “Some of the food I had received was poor quality, canned, and sugary,” she said. Then, The Common Market stepped in and her first Farm-Fresh Box arrived. “The box came with fresh bread, dried beans, potatoes, a beet, kale, canned crushed tomatoes, and cheddar cheese. My first thought was that someone wants me to live and it almost brought tears to my eyes.”
 
One of the many things that the COVID-19 crisis has illuminated for our country is just how flawed our food system is and always has been, particularly when it comes to accessing fresh food. This crisis has also illustrated, however, that organizations like The Common Market - with existing infrastructure, relationships and investment in community food systems - are able to adapt and respond. 
 
A mission-driven response to COVID-19
The Common Market, a mission-driven distributor of regional farm products, is partnering with farmer and grower networks, city governments, school districts and other community organizations across the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast and Texas regions to ensure vulnerable communities receive fresh, healthy food and producers can continue business operations, pay workers and meet community needs. 
 
The Common Market was founded 12 years ago in Philadelphia, PA as a Mid-Atlantic regional food hub and distributor to improve fresh food accessibility in lower-income communities as well as farm viability and community and ecological health. In 2016, they expanded their model to the Southeast (located in Atlanta, Georgia) and Texas (located in Houston, Texas) in 2018. 

Historically, most of their work was with institutional kitchens, including schools (including early childhood education sites, traditional public schools, public charters, and independents), hospitals, colleges and universities, eldercare, stadiums and corrections facilities. 

“Once the coronavirus outbreak really took hold in our regions, our large institutional customers began shutting down,” describes Caitlin Honan, Marketing Coordinator with The Common Market. “Some of our farmers wondered, how would they continue to work with us? How could they follow through with their crop plans?” 

Leaning on their mission to serve, The Common Market acted swiftly and pivoted to a Farm-Fresh Box model in order to keep their commitments with their farmers as much as possible, while serving communities in need. The Farm-Fresh Boxes include a variety of seasonal produce delivered in a food-safe, self-contained box that requires minimal handling and maximum efficiency. Each box is curated by Common Market staff and farmers and represents what’s in season and available locally in each region. For example, in Texas, a typical box may include cauliflower, grapefruit, herbs, button mushrooms, red onions, kale and sweet potatoes. In the Southeast region, a box may include lettuce, shiitake mushrooms, sweet potatoes, kale, asparagus, strawberries, mustard greens and in Atlanta, the boxes also include meat and eggs. And in the Mid-Atlantic region, boxes may include asparagus, apples, scallions, lettuce, radishes and tatsoi along with bread, cheese, and dried beans.


The Common Market Mid-Atlantic Farm-Fresh Box for New York recipients.
They deliver to the most convenient aggregation point for their communities such as hospitals, community centers, childcare facilities and churches. The program provides much needed revenue for their local, family farms and offers flexible pricing for their community partners. The Farm-Fresh Box program has resulted in an unprecedented number of deliveries to families and individuals. The Common Market Texas, Southeast, and Mid-Atlantic regions are averaging 200-300, 6,000, and 13,000 boxes per week, respectively. 
 
Honoring existing partnerships and commitments
Trusted relationships in their regions have been invaluable to The Common Market’s ability to respond to current needs. 

The Common Market Texas partners with
  • The Texas Center for Local Food to deliver boxes for families at the Family Health Clinic in Elgin, TX, a community-based clinic that offers free services for low-income families 
  • The Harris Health System to provide fresh food access for Harris County - which includes the city of Houston - hospital staff and patients, with plans to expand into a community curbside pickup with SNAP accessibility
The Common Market Southeast partners with 
  • The Atlanta Housing Authority to deliver Farm-Fresh Boxes weekly to doorsteps of seniors sheltered-in place
  • Enrichment Service Program (ESP) Head Start in southwest Georgia to deliver 165 boxes to ESP Head Start in Columbus, GA for families with young children
  • The Community Farmers Markets (CFM) and a network of small farmers to allow Atlanta-based farmers’ markets to operate out of The Common Market’s facility
The Common Market Mid-Atlantic partners with
  • Greener Partners to distribute 3,500+ pounds of local food to more than 500 seniors and families in Pennsylvania
  • Newark Public Schools in Newark, New Jersey and Red Rabbit in Harlem, New York to distribute local apples among emergency school meals 


The Common Market Southeast Farm-Fresh box drop at ESP Head Start in Columbus, GA. 
Through these regional partnerships, The Common Market has been able to honor existing commitments with farmers and producers and help their businesses weather this crisis. Several producers who were on the brink of laying off their entire teams have been able to keep everyone employed due to the demand facilitated through The Common Market’s contracts. “We’re incredibly grateful. It’s amazing to be a part of the relief effort in New York City. Our farmers are relieved to have a pathway for our produce, to know that our instincts and our hearts were in the right place [when we decided to move forward with our 2020 crop plans],” shared a farmer partner at Sunny Harvest, located in Kirkwood, PA. 

New partnerships and collaborations
While existing relationships and infrastructure positioned The Common Market to readily respond to this crisis, it is the innovative new partnerships and collaborations that have supported their ability to scale up and meet the unprecedented and growing needs of the communities they serve. 

Before the COVID-19 crisis, The Common Market contracted with city governments in New York and Philadelphia to provide specific farm foods to their departments of corrections. For example, in New York they won the bid to provide all of the humane cage-free eggs to Rikers Island prison complex, which demanded a full truckload every other week. 

The Common Market is increasingly seeking contract opportunities with government entities to provide more consistent and significant opportunities for the farmers they represent. “We see contracting with municipalities and school districts as a way to scale positive impact for both urban and rural communities,” explains Haile Johnston, one of The Common Market’s co-founders.*


The Common Market Texas Farm-Fresh Box contents.  
Now, due to an initiative from Mayor Bill de Blasio, The Common Market Mid-Atlantic has partnered with New York City to deliver meals to New Yorkers who are unable to access food on their own. The Common Market tapped into existing models to specifically address areas that already lack access to healthy and fresh food options. 13,000 Farm-Fresh boxes like the one Janice in Jackson Heights received - including a variety of produce, dried beans, cheese and fresh bread - are reaching New Yorkers weekly. 
 
The New York City contract connected The Common Market with the National Guard – a partnership to help with the last mile of direct at-home delivery and curbside pick-ups. The National Guard regularly meets up with The Common Market employees to help break down the pallets and load Farm-Fresh boxes into taxis and limos in order to deliver the fresh food to people’s homes. According to a recent Daily News article, more than 11,000 New York City taxi and for-hire vehicle drivers have become city-employed food delivery workers during the pandemic, earning a $15-an-hour salary. “It’s amazing to be contributing to such a massive effort. It’s very meaningful to be able to maintain outlets for our farmers’ harvests through this partnership” describes Yael Lehmann, Executive Director of The Common Market Mid-Atlantic. 
 

Members of the National Guard loading The Common Market boxes into vehicles for distribution throughout New York City.
Looking ahead
The Common Market has made significant changes to its model to respond to this crisis. However, there are several adjustments that The Common Market regional directors hope will continue beyond the immediate crisis. “I look forward to continuing our Farm-Fresh box program, which we launched in response to the crisis, retaining community engagement and government activity,” describes Margaret Smith, Director of The Common Market Texas. 

All of The Common Market locations have had to pivot their business model to adjust for shifting customer demands, including hiring additional warehouse staff and drivers to help with the increased workload and shifting their outreach approach to the community. “Our outreach efforts have centered around establishing and strengthening relationships with community partners who are serving the most vulnerable in our community: senior care facilities, homeless shelters, food pantries and organizations providing resources to needy families” says Bill Green, Executive Director of the Common Market Southeast.


The Common Market Mid-Atlantic Driver, Erick, wearing a Food Delivery Crisis Response team vest.
The Common Market has also seen that there is a huge role for their organization to play in serving urgent food and hunger needs. “We’ve been fortunate, and have heard directly from individuals receiving our food,” says Lehmann. “They’ve shared how grateful they are to receive high-quality, fresh, healthy and locally grown food during this time. For some of them, until they received our Farm-Fresh Boxes, they have mostly received low-quality, processed and packaged foods that aren’t the healthiest, and unfortunately this is the norm in the emergency food world.” 

Resilient food systems are community-powered 
The Common Market and its network of producers, delivery service providers and community organizations are showing just how resilient community-powered food systems are. Resilient community food systems are designed to manage crises; they have strong feedback loops and rely on strong local economies and policies, robust infrastructure, flexible distribution networks, innovative partnerships and trusted relationships. 
 
It is organizations like The Common Market who are pushing the dialogue around what food justice and health equity means and how we all can emerge from this crisis with the evidence, tools, stories and relationships to push for lasting and transformational change in our food system.

“Now, more than ever, we believe in the importance of resilient food systems that support our health and are strong enough to withstand any challenge,” says Smith. “It’s times like these when our vibrant community must shine the brightest. Our values, our networks built on mutual support, and our innovation will see us through as a community.”

*Haile Johnston, co-founder of The Common Market, is Advisory Board Chair of the National Farm to School Network.

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