CSAs: Shedding Snobby Image?
More and more New Yorkers are buying their produce directly from local farmers, and it’s not just through farmers market. Do you want to know how? Through “community supported agriculture” or CSA.
For those who have never heard of CSA, let me explain. Community supported agriculture is a method of food production that links a farmer directly to an urban community. CSA members pay the farmer in advance for seasonal produce that’s delivered regularly at community sites. In a summer CSA program, produce is delivered weekly, usually over a 20- to 22-week period. In a winter program, it’s delivered monthly, as I described in this article in New York Resident magazine.
While CSAs have become increasingly popular nationwide, they’ve often been perceived as elitist. Only the wealthy could afford to participate in what was out of reach for many people. But that perception may soon change as CSA shares come down in price and more farmers enter the CSA farming business.
At a conference on CSA held this March in New York City, the author and food activist Joan Gussow noted that the average price of a summer share has fallen since CSAs first emerged in 1987. Back then, they cost $597 on average. Today, they’re rarely cost more than $500.
What’s more, CSAs have made great progress in reaching out to low-income individuals, establishing creative payment arrangements, including subsidized or sliding-scale shares based on household income. The Bed-Stuy CSA in Brooklyn, for example, offers a reduced share price of $325 for households with income less than $25,000. The regular share price is $425.
Many other CSAs offer similar arrangements. The Fort Greene CSA in Brooklyn reserves half of its 45 shares for low-income individuals, a quota it had not yet managed to fill as of late May. A 22-week low-income share in this CSA costs $300. An upper-income share, in contrast, costs $400.
In such sliding-scale payment arrangements, high-income earners often help subsidize the shares of people who cannot afford to pay as much. The low-income shares can also be subsidized by grants, donations and fundraising events.
In addition to subsidized shares, the majority of CSAs in New York City offer flexible payment options, again making it easier for low-income individuals to participate in CSAs. Many accept food stamps and allow members to pay in installments. In 2007, more than 30 of the city’s 50 CSA sites had at least one flexible payment option, according to Just Food, a nonprofit group that promotes CSAs and urban agriculture in New York City.
In some cases, CSAs are used to help feed the hungry. In his book Closing the Food Gap, Mark Winnie writes about a food bank in Hatfield, Mass., that is linked to a 600-member CSA. The CSA members receive half of the produce grown on 60 acres of farmland. The rest is donated to the food bank for distribution to 400 local food pantries.
Another example is the Holcomb Farm CSA in Hartford, Conn., which sells market-rate shares to its 300 members and deeply discounted shares to 11 community organizations that work with low-income earners. According to Winnie, the CSA distributes between 30% to 40% of its produce among Hartford’s 1,200 low-income residents through the community organizations.
None of this sounds snobby to me. Any lingering perception of CSAs as snobby is likely to fade as more low-income earners gain access to CSA food.