Wednesday, September 3, 2008

CSAs in the City: Community Support Needed

Full weekly share from Seasons' Harvest Farm

Those of us that read food, garden, or homestead blogs are familiar with the acronym "CSA" for Community Supported Agriculture. But the general public, not so much. I find it encouraging that our local paper is covering changes in the food economy, with articles like this one, about a small Kutztown CSA that lets one family afford to garden for 14 other families.

A lot of local produce goes directly to the Philadelphia market. There are other CSAs used by Berks Countians, but I am specifically looking at CSAs that are easily accessible to residents of Reading, where the 85,000 people live.

City-Accessible CSAs in Berks. The only CSA plans I can find in Berks, with pick-up within 10 miles of the city of Reading, are these:
Seasons' Harvest Farm - $575 Large and $415 Medium shares for 24 weeks in 2008. The farm is in Lenhartsville, far northern Berks, but one of their CSA drop-offs is at the GoggleWorks art center, making them the only CSA with a Reading city location. I know people that are happy with this CSA.

B&H Produce - $320 for 16 weeks in 2008, pick-up at the farm in Morgantown, or in Wyomissing and Shillington. I know this owner, and you can also sample her produce at the West Reading Farmer's Market on Sundays. I know people that are happy with this CSA.

Farm To City - $550 Full Share, $400 Partial Share for 23 weeks in 2008. The Red Earth Farm is in Schuylkill County near Pottsville, but the CSA mostly delivers in Philadelphia, with stops in Kutztown and Oley. I don't know anyone using this CSA this year.

Two Gander Farm in Oley is offering their first CSA, a winter plan (the only winter CSA) with greens, honey, and cellared vegetables. $475 for 20 bi-monthly boxes of winter roots and greens, including a 14 oz jar of honey, works out to $23.75/week. They plan to offer a spring and summer CSA next year. You can find them at the West Reading Market on Sundays.

Quiet Creek Farm is worth mentioning, although pick up is in Kutztown. It is part of the famous Rodale Institute Farm, which pioneered organic farming. A full share is $650, a half-share is $465, June through November.

There were 2 other CSAs in Oley. Covered Bridge Produce failed in 2006. Old Earth Farm announced that their 2008 season cancelled, and I don't know what is happening there. These failures worry me, because they make buying into a CSA look unacceptably risky.

There may be other CSAs, but they are invisible to me. One shortcoming of CSA farmers is a failure to take advantage of the internet. Every farm needs a website with current info on it. Barter with a hungry web designer! B&H does a very good job with this - website, and a blog with each week's share described, and they are listed at Please be findable, if you want community support.
Obstacles to CSA Use for City Dwellers. the average city dweller has zero knowledge about the benefits of buying locally, eating seasonally, avoiding farm chemicals, or the value of investing themselves in the support of a small family farm effort through a CSA. I know my city neighbors don't understand. Most of them work hard just to get the most food for the least money. Carrots seem like carrots, whether they are industrial, organic, homegrown, canned, or frozen. They don't go to the local grower market in West Reading because it is perceived as producing "food for rich suburban people who can afford to be picky."

It's harder to get low-to-moderate-income folks on the organic/local bandwagon that we need them to be on. We need them if we want to see wider-spread changes in how food is produced, delivered, and consumed. It will not work if we only include the elite bunch that can go to a foodie fest in San Francisco. CSAs, for example, which seem like a good idea for anyone, still come with obstacles for the urban dweller of modest means. There maybe solutions, but the community structure to support them is not there yet.

Even if we agree that the 35% of Reading households living below the poverty line simply cannot afford a CSA share, we are still left with the 65% that might afford it.

There are obstacles that will require community responses. It not fair to expect the farmers to solve it all - their profit margin it too narrow. And the lower-income households would typically have trouble organizing community structures beyond the neighborhood level. So, support needs to come from middle-to-upper income organizers. I don't think we should wait for government to provide the solutions we need.

1. People with fixed or limited incomes can't assemble the large payment. Most CSAs require about $500 in advance, long before the season starts. It's a good deal in the long run - an average of less than $25/week for a lot of produce. But $500 is a whole month's food budget, and there are no extra big lumps of cash lying around.
Possible Solution: A nonprofit could engage itself in buying CSA shares that families can purchase on a weekly basis. It would be more effective if families could use food stamps. An individual CSA can also commit to providing a certain number of reduced-price shares, or accept the risk of allowing a few members to pay weekly.
2. There are almost no delivery spots in the city. That effectively excludes city families that need to shop close to home because they have no cars, or very limited gas money.
Possible Solution: An urban church or social justice group could offer their facility for weekly CSA delivery, helping the CSA farmer with distribution tasks.
3. The CSA box includes unfamiliar food. Chard, turnips, garlic scapes, etc. These are gourmet treats for people used to cooking with them, but just so much rotting trash to those that don't know what to do with the stuff. That can make the CSA look like less of a good idea.
Possible Solution: The Penn State Cooperative Extension has two staffers that work on nutrition for low-income folks, including one that is bilingual and works mostly in Reading. That program could use more funding. Someone needs to identify and teach willing city people to cook (or support community cooks that can teach). Most people don't know how plan for and use seasonal food and simple staples, to replace processed food with homemade. It would also be nice to share cooking traditions between ethnic cultures, which would teach us to use unfamiliar produce. Language bridges are needed. Another option is for CSAs to be flexible with box contents, allowing people to substitute for things they won't use.
4. It is hard to take risks with our food budgets. Buying into a CSA is a gamble. What if it failed one year? There are no refunds; you share the risk of the farmer. You would have to come up with more money to replace the CSA produce you expected.
Possible Solution: One could hedge the bet by buying into a CSA and also planting some tomatoes and peppers at home. Or splitting a CSA share with someone else, so neither family is completely depending on the CSA. Or splitting two shares at two different CSA farms.
5. CSAs aren't a good match for small households. The city is full of singles, elderly and not. Single-parent households are the norm. Eating a giant box of leafy greens might be what we wish for a mother with young children, but we can't expect to start there. We have high-rise apartment buildings full of elderly residents, and no remaining farmer's market in the city.
Possible Solution: An organization that matches up 2-3 families to split CSA shares. Perhaps the same one that helps finance shares over time. It would need to come with recipes and help figuring out how to use that produce to cook for one, or for picky children. Or maybe we need to match seniors who could contribute to a share, with families that could cook for them. This kind of matching could also happen at the neighborhood level, if someone simply steps up to organize CSA shares for their block.
6. CSAs don't take food stamps. Some market vendors take WIC and senior citizen produce vouchers, but they have to be registered with the state for that. Some vendors in the suburban farmer's markets take food stamps. But no CSA that I know of can process food stamps, and that kind of paperwork may be beyond them.
Possible Solution: A CSA could partner with another vendor that is able to process food stamp purchases. Or, we are back to that matching/financing organization for city residents. It is possible to address this at the neighborhood level, if someone uses their food stamps to buy a bulk staple like flour, and then trades it for part of a CSA share - but that is a complex transaction.
7. CSAs are invisible. One of the biggest obstacles is the lack of visible information for city residents. I had to work hard and know the key Google search words to find what I did.
Possible Solutions: Part of this is CSAs needing to figure how to be more visible. But part is a larger media and community need to look more carefully at the real food shopping choices available to city dwellers.
Most working families do not have the time or money to spend on broad comparision shopping - they go to the place they can get the majority of their needs met. The Super Wal-Mart is a frequent choice.

Corner stores, ethnic food stores, and small independent city groceries are visible within more limited neighborhoods, and may carry home-grown or local produce. I know that some stores go to the Kutztown Produce Auction to buy bulk, or make deals with individual farmers. They are not good at advertising their local produce. Overall, the lack of selection and high prices make corner stores a poor choice for a family that can go anywhere else.

Supermarkets like Giant and Weis are visible, and put flyers in the weekly papers. The Super Wal-Mart is very visible in the urban food scene. The two large suburban farmer's markets are fairly visible, but shoppers will drive right past them on the way to the Super Wal-Mart. Personally, I try to avod Wal-mart, although their organic offerings are expanding and that is generally a worthwhile trend, introducing organic options to low-budget shoppers.

Discount grocery chains like Aldi and Price-Rite make themselves very accessible to people with small budgets and limited transportation. They offer house-brand canned and frozen food, basic produce and meat, discounted brand-name snacks. Almost none of it is locally produced, but you can half your grocery bill by doing most of your shopping at a discount grocer.

I get a good portion of my staples from discount grocers, and I am a better-educated food shopper than most. Price-Rite has the lowest-priced honey in the county, and good prices on canned and dried beans, sacks of rice, tortillas, large canisters of herbs and spices. Aldi has the best prices on staples like saltines, canola oil, sugar, baking supplies, dairy products, frozen ground turkey, canned vegetables, and 100% beef burgers, inexpensive cuts of pork. I can get real cheese in blocks as low as $2.50/lb at times; markets and grocery chains never go that low.

I am a low-to-moderate income food shopper, and I can't afford the food buying choices I would like to make, even though I know what they are. I can go to discounters, liquidators, ethnic stores, U-pick orchards, and spend $20-30/week at a local produce market. I can manage some small bulk purchases to save money. But no CSA, and I can't afford to avoid cheap imported food in favor of a more local diet. When gas and food prices rise again, the options I can afford will be curtailed. That isn't just a family problem, it's a community problem, and a societal one.


Verde said...

I didn't know about CSAs until I started blogging.

We don't have any around here, but in the city we had a food coop targeted at bringing anyone affordable produce. All the food arrived at a ware house and different teams from all over 50 miles or more picked up the food and took it to their neighborhoods for distribution. It was conventionally grown, but cheaper than grocery stores

Myrto Ashe said...

I agree with your premise that we will need local food subsidized if we aim to re-localize the food supply. I think international non-organic food is cheap to us in part because of hidden subsidies, while local farmers simply can't produce food that cheaply. It's a classic joke that corn in the US costs more to grow than to buy. So the farmer's market prices are the real cost of nutritious food that does not impact the planet more than it must. However, meanwhile, we are all tied in to spending our money in other ways that now seem unavoidable, because the infrastructure that allowed us to spend a larger proportion on food has collapsed. And also, we keep hearing that wages have not kept up with inflation. We just feel like we are still surviving because cheap international food is available.

Here in Boulder, CO, we have a Transition Town initiative ( My focus is on local food ( One aspect is to work on re-localizing the food supply. Hopefully, the high disposable income of Boulderites will give us the leeway to pioneer some of the issues other communities will need to eventually address. My issue with my CSA is that even the "large" share ($600/year) is insufficient to feed my family, and I have to spend additional time foraging at farmstands and the twice weekly farmers' market. But how could it? I am used to spending much more than that at the store!

The only immediate solution to re-localizing the food supply is for more people to grow their own food and volunteer on farms. Also it helps to make your own processed food, including bread, pasta, yogurt, etc... Time for this would come from our television viewing, presumably - I understand people are also strapped for time (!) No question this transition is problematic.