Once a Niche, Local Foods Becoming Big Business

"It's all designed to reconnect people with the food that they consume so that there is a better appreciation, a greater appreciation, for the amazing story of American agriculture regardless of what production system you favor, or what sized operation you have," he says.

Haile Johnston says he co-founded Common Market in 2008 after seeing how little farmers were making at wholesale and how much customers were paying for the same foods in the city.

"The two anchors of the chain, the producers and consumers, are really the most marginalized in this system," he said.

Johnston says hospitals like Jefferson, along with schools, were a part of their model from the start because they could be a steady source of business and serve a large number of low-income people who may not have much access to produce.

In 2008, Common Market generated $125,000 in sales. This year, the organization is set to surpass $2.5 million — all money reinvested into the nonprofit. Last year, Common Market received a $300,000 USDA grant designed to improve access to healthier foods in low-income communities.

New York City's Greenmarket Co. and Detroit's Eastern Market are running similar models, both with help from USDA. Like Common Market's, their customers are varied, from large institutions to grocery stores, restaurants and farmers markets in low-income areas.

USDA has helped these hubs and farmers that supply them with research dollars, technical support, microloans, infrastructure such as hoop houses for winter growth and help buying equipment. USDA also facilitates farm-to-school programs and has heavily invested in promoting farmers markets.

In Mississippi, Wal-Mart has started buying purple hull peas — similar to black-eyed peas — directly from farmers in the Mississippi Delta, a deal cemented with USDA help. One of the farmers, Charles Houston, says the checks from Wal-Mart have helped many of his area's small farms survive, paying for new irrigation and infrastructure.

Ron McCormick, Wal-Mart's senior director of sustainable agriculture, says many of the company's distributors are getting into the local game. The company, the nation's largest retailer, pledged to double its share of locally grown foods between 2009 and 2015.

Consumers are continuing to want more of it. Consumer and market research company Hartman Group found that nearly a third of consumers bought more local products than in the previous year.

Dan Carmody of Detroit's Eastern Market says he compares local foods to the craft brew industry — once on the sidelines, it's now making a dent in the country's beer sales.

"You see the same thing happening in food," he says. "It's really changing the narrative."

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Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MCJalonick

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