Everyone deserves affordable access to healthy, local food. For far too long, that hasn’t been the reality for low-income communities, leading to disastrous health impacts and related health care costs. Purveyors of fresh, sustainably-produced foods tend to concentrate in high-income neighborhoods, while stores and restaurants in both urban and rural “food deserts” offer mostly “cheap calories”: high-fat, high-sugar, nutrient-poor, low-cost processed foods.
This same food system has levied a heavy toll on farmers and food producers through decades of disinvestment in local and regional food systems, threatening the economic viability of small family farms and the cultural fabric of whole communities. So how can we–consumers and producers alike–rebuild a sustainable, local economy from the ground up and reclaim the power to provide healthy food for our families?
As Will Byrne explained here last year, innovators around the country are attempting to answer that question by using the shared market power of communities to effect positive change in our food and other systems. “Good food” advocates are realizing that, collectively, we already hold the potential to support a parallel system that serves the needs and values of consumer and producer communities.
Alternative values-based models have sprouted up over the years to address some of these challenges. Food co-operative markets have expanded consumer choice and values-driven, joint procurement. The community supported agriculture (CSA) model compels consumers to cooperate to gain regular access to sustainably-grown farm food while extending financial support and fair pricing to farmers. Fair Trade, meanwhile, exemplifies a global social movement to support and incentivize fair prices to producers and exporters, better working conditions for laborers, and improved environmental outcomes as a result of Fair Trade product production.
While impactful and compelling, these examples often leave out the most food insecure, low-income communities, and rarely approach changing the systems and infrastructure that is at the heart of food systems. But a new crop of like-minded companies are finding ways to organize the collective purchasing power of these communities and serve them through smaller regional networks.
About five years ago, we launched a regional food distribution project in Philadelphia named Common Market in an attempt to democratize access to good food while improving the viability of sustainable farming in the Mid-Atlantic region. We began by asking a simple question: What could we, as a community of disparate individual households, do to change the quality, affordability and accessibility of food that comes into our community?
Our answer to that question was to turn collective demand for local, farm-fresh food into purchases from sustainable, small family farms–putting power back into the hands of the producers and consumers the global food system left behind.
We see businesses and organizations all over the country employ three strategies in particular to help low-access communities foster collective power to purchase local, sustainable food:
• Engage Institutions: Institutions–hospitals, schools, and eldercare facilities–have tremendous collective purchasing power due to their size and the number of people they serve, many of whom come from disadvantaged communities. Most try to find the lowest cost products to meet their needs, and turn to large distributors for their food. And while the largest scale distributors offer low prices, cheap food comes at a cost. The industrial farms that supply their food levy a heavy toll on the environment, as does transporting cheap food from countries of origin. But institutions can find comparable prices for sustainably-raised local foods, too, so long as there are food distributors aggregating enough product from local farms. Distributors like Local Food Hub in Charlottesville, VA are helping institutions realize their collective consumption power, while countering the conventional food system’s exclusion of underserved populations all along the value chain.
• Partner with “Non-traditional Allies”: Distributors of local, farm-fresh food recognize that places of work and worship are alternative “communities” that can help people get good food not available near their homes. Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Veggie Box program offers members boxes of local produce for pick up at their workplaces, schools, or churches.
• Share Information: Unlike the competitive conventional food system, advocates of local, sustainable food share best practices and innovations to advance our collective goal: make more food accessible to more people. Organizations like the National Good Food Network circulate studies, presentations, and notices of new opportunities throughout the national regional food systems community. At the local level, city and regional food policy councils assemble stakeholders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to share information that will inform equitable, mutually-beneficial food-related policies.
These three pillars of collective power in the food system have been crucial to Common Market’s success. We specialize in institutional service, aggregating large volumes of the produce and proteins hospitals and schools need most. Our Delaware Valley Farm Share Program offers biweekly deliveries of local produce to members at their offices, churches, and schools. And we seek out partnership opportunities in our own region and around the country to promote local, sustainable food production, distribution, and access.
Local food distributors and food hubs like Common Market are co-powering collective purchasing power, and helping actors all along the food value chain–from the farmers who grow it to the consumers who eat it–to recognize their collective potential to build a more equitable and healthy food system. We do more than aggregate food; we help communities connect to aggregate their economic power. Civic consumption can support shared values that improve the individual, economic, and environmental health for marginalized communities in all sectors of our economy.