Market Forces

"Buy local" activists are studying the potential for a food distribution center that would sell only regionally grown produce.

By Katy Bolesta
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 23, 2006

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Meals on wheels: Trucks unload at South Philly's food distribution center. Photo by Krystle Marcellus

Most food consumed in the United States travels an average of 1,500 to 2,500 miles before reaching its final destination-your mouth. This means the "fresh" fruits and veggies purchased in your neighborhood supermarket were likely in transit for seven to 14 days before landing on the produce aisle.

This fact, combined with the environmental problem of emissions and the astronomical rise in gas prices, has convinced some activists to declare the widely used "commodity system" of shipping foods nearly obsolete. As a result, organizations that promote locally grown produce are on the rise across the country.

Farm to City and eight other neighborhood food partners are conducting a feasibility study to determine the potential for a local-food distribution center in Brewerytown.

The study-funded by a $100,000 grant from the governor's First Industries Program-will determine whether the distribution center, called Common Market, will open next year.

Common Market's primary goal will be to strengthen the connection between local farmers and businesses, co-ops and institutions interested in purchasing food that's both high-quality and locally grown.

The state opted to fund the feasibility study in the hope of encouraging agricultural growth on the outskirts of Philadelphia, says Kevin Ortiz, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

"This will actually consolidate a smaller and fragmented system for getting locally grown products into urban markets," Ortiz says. "The goal is to do this more efficiently and somewhat more extensively."

Farm to City program director Bob Pierson characterizes the vast farmland in southeastern Pennsylvania as a blessing that shouldn't be taken for granted.

"Most of the supermarket foods come from large corporations," Pierson says. "They have no control over how the farms are growing these foods, how they're treating their workers and how they're treating the environment. We can begin to change that."

FoodRoutes Network, a national nonprofit, launched the local food movement in 2000. It forged partnerships with smaller community-based nonprofits across the country to develop a brand identity for locally grown food. The result was a "buy fresh, buy local" marketing campaign to connect community farmers with consumers.

In Philadelphia community organizations like Farm to City, Fair Food Farmstand at Reading Terminal and various co-ops and buying clubs are promoting the "buy fresh, buy local" movement. Their endeavors reflect a national trend. Ten states from Maine to California run similar campaigns.

The Keystone State was an original supporter of the initiative, says Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.

"Pennsylvania was perhaps the first to really implement it on a statewide basis," he notes, adding that people in different parts of the state use different versions of the label.

Six years later consumer response to local food has grown exponentially. "Buy local" promotions coordinated by Philly-based organizations and farmers' market sales have gone from generating less than $200,000 in 2001 to raking in $625,000 last year.

A local-food distribution center like Common Market could only expand the community benefits, Snyder says. The market would contribute to economic development in Philadelphia by keeping food dollars local, "instead of leaving, and going across the country where most food is shipped from," he notes.

The proposed Common Market site is the ground floor of a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in Brewerytown called Eastern Lofts. Ideally, the market would attract other businesses to the Lofts. Caterers, food co-ops, buying clubs and a canning operation could all benefit from the foods moving in. The distribution center also plans to fill orders from local restaurants, schools and grocery stores.

Katy Bolesta ( is a PW intern.

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