When you join a CSA – a Community Supported Agriculture program – and buy a share in the harvest of a local or regional farm, you know where your food comes from, who your farmer is, and who is in your community.
Do you look for fresh, nutritious food that hasn’t been sitting around on shelves — or preserved with artificial products? Do you want your kids to know where their food comes from? Maybe even have a hand in planting or harvesting it? Do you prefer to support local farmers? Do you try to eat seasonally? Do you like to mix it up in the kitchen and learn how to cook with new vegetables? Do you want to have a relationship with the farmers who grow your food? And the other people who are sustained by the same farm?
If this sounds like you, then you may already be a CSA member! (If you’re looking to join one, check out the map on the Local Harvest website for CSA farms near you.)
Community supported agriculture came to the USA from biodynamic farmers in Europe and from models in Japan, where it is called teikei, meaning “food with a farmer’s face.” In the U.S., over four thousand CSA farms are catalogued on the Local Harvest website to date, with each farm having as many as several hundred or as few as a dozen shareholders. CSA programs continue to thrive around the world, and CSA is connecting with many diverse institutions — schools and colleges, soup kitchens and food banks, farm stands or farmers’ markets, restaurants, hospitals, and businesses.
CSA is succeeding and expanding because it represents not just a different way of farming, but a different social and economic model, one based on principles of community, cooperation, and justice.
Shared Risk, Shared Reward
In most cases, CSA members pay up front – or in stages – which allows the farmers to access funds early in the season when they need to pay for things like seeds, and then to have stability going into the season. When you subscribe to a CSA program, you’re buying into the anticipated harvest of that specific farm and you’ll receive a share of the farm’s produce throughout the growing season. ‘Community-supported’ in this case is literal and what makes the CSA model of shared risk and shared reward possible.
Most often, CSAs run on a box-a-week basis, but it’s becoming more common for farms to offer alternatives for flexible options based on scheduling, household size, and preferences. Want berries? Add a fruit share. Cheese or meats? Grab a grassfed share. Eggs, flowers, bread, honey, jams and herbs – you can find varying options within the CSA structure to suit your needs. As the CSA model grows in popularity, more custom-tailored boxes have cropped up, where you can pick-your-own produce preferences. CSA members pick up their share in any number of locations locally: community centers, church basements, backyard drop sites and in some cases, the farm itself.
By definition, CSA is seasonal eating. Each boxed share represents what the farmers determine is ripe and ready to send home that week. As the first tender greens of spring give way to the tomatoes, peppers, herbs and fruits of summer, the squash and root vegetables of fall and the potatoes, carrots, onions, and greens of winter, you’re in the natural rhythm of the seasons. Becoming a member of a CSA will likely introduce you to vegetables you wouldn’t otherwise buy, and may even send you looking for new recipes for kohlrabi, kuri red squash, rutabaga, or daikon radishes.
In the words of CSA pioneer Robyn Van En, “growing food is the common thread throughout the world, in that everybody eats. It connects everyone across all party lines, all ethnic and religious differences.” There can be challenges in eating seasonally and experimenting with new vegetables — many of us feel we don’t have the skills or the time to cook and eat together. CSA programs have responded with cooking and nutrition classes, sharing recipes, and potluck suppers. We are rediscovering the joy of cooking, of connecting with our ingredients, of sharing food with our families and friends. Connecting with each other over the week’s fresh eggplants and the best soup recipes builds community along the way.
That said, CSA doesn’t work for everyone who tries it—and CSA programs are just one piece of building an alternative food system. Many people love the surprise of what’s in their weekly box of produce; others would rather choose their vegetables. Some people are excited by the quantity of fresh food; others are afraid they’ll never be able to eat it all. If you’ve tried CSA and it doesn’t work for you, don’t let your harukei turnip-loving CSA-member friends put you off! There’s a growing crop of other kinds of local produce subscription services that may make more sense for you. If you’d rather shop more traditionally, check out a nearby farmers market—or tell your grocery store that you’d like them to carry more local produce.
Food Justice for All
CSA can also be a natural entry point to get people talking to their neighbors across race and class about food justice issues.A priority of many CSA initiatives is to bring healthy food into low-income communities. Through various pricing options — including spreading out payments over time, work shares, sliding-scale prices, accepting SNAP (formerly food stamps) and selling low-cost shares to food banks — low-income CSA members often get the greatest produce bang for their buck (or for their SNAP benefits) through a CSA.
Well-managed community supported agriculture can be the beginning of real food system change for everyone from the lowest income member to the farmer. With just a pickup site, a willing farmer, and active community organizers, a CSA can bring just-picked, delicious produce to an area where vegetables are scarce — making CSA a relatively simple change to a neighborhood’s food system, as compared to opening a market or grocery store.
Knowing Your Farmer
It means something to know where your food came from and who grew it. But it’s not just CSA members who appreciate this relationship — CSA farmers describe how much contact with members means to them and how the hard work of farming is changed by knowing who they are farming for.
As Tom Spaulding of Angelic Organics Learning Center points out, community supported agriculture is not a middle class movement of rich farmers. “CSA farmers who themselves lack healthcare and sustainable livelihoods are subsidizing the production of the highest-quality food in a society that is focused on cheap food.” A strong relationship between farmer and shareholders can ensure that the CSA is just and advantageous for the farmer. Beginning-of-season payments provide cash on the front end when the farmer needs it most, and members contribute volunteer labor and administrative duties. For many CSA farmers, the relationship with their members is what enables them to farm at all. Some young farmers have been able to start their own farms because of the investment and shared risk of members. Similarly, in the event of a catastrophe—such as storms that have devastated farms around the Northeast in recent years—farmers are often able to recover more quickly when they have the backing of a CSA community.
None of the stages of our food system exist apart from relationship, but too often these links are invisible or anonymous in conventional food options. CSA brings this web front and center: your farmer may be on site at the pick-up location to talk to the members, often farmers write a newsletter about the farm and invite CSA members to visit. Through contact with other members, special events or work days on the farm, members often make new friends, gain a sense of community, feel more connected with the source of their food, learn new ways to prepare and enjoy produce, and feel the satisfaction of supporting a model of farming that reflects their values.