Haile Johnston spent his early career turning vacant lots in his Philadelphia neighborhood into gardens and parks.
For most, that would have been enough. But not Johnston. He knew more had to be done.
“After becoming aware of the health disparities in our neighborhood, we knew we had to find a way to provide access to healthful food from the farm to the table,” he said.
So from the ground up, Johnston cofounded and built Common Market. It is a nonprofit food distributor that brings fresh food from regional farms to neighborhoods, schools, community groups, grocers and hospitals between New York and Baltimore.
But the project didn’t bloom easily.
Because there were few examples of similar regional programs, it was hard for Common Market, founded in 2008, to attract funding in its early days. That, too, is changing. Common Market was recently awarded a $300,000 grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture through the Community Food Project. And they gained national attention this year when the program was featured by Hartford-based Aetna in the company’s 2014 African American History Calendar, now in its 33rd year.
“We are now seen as a leader. There is a national movement around creating regional food sources,” Johnston said.
Common Market enjoys partnering with organizations that share similar values such as the farm-to-school movement. In five years, more than 100 schools in the Philadelphia region have been served with healthful food options.
Teens involved in the program are learning about food production and entrepreneurship by selling produce they help grow at small farm stands in low-income communities.
“Through the alliance, we teach kids business skills and how to eat well, while giving them opportunities to make money,” Johnston said. “Communities hold the power to create solutions within themselves. When they participate in their growth, they are the most sustainable.”