More Beets For the Buck

Community-Supported Agriculture is the Affordable Way to Go Organic

For most consumers, organic produce is an appealing alternative that they just can’t afford. High price tags don’t exactly encourage the nutritionally curious to make the switch to healthier, pesticide-free greens. But what if there was another way to obtain fresh, organically-grown fruits and vegetables, and it was inexpensive to boot?

There is! It’s called community-supported agriculture (CSA), and it’s sprouting up in every region of the U.S. The concept originated in Japan 30 years ago, conjured into existence by a group of disgruntled women concerned about the loss of farmland to development, and about the effects of pesticides on their families. The women approached local farmers with the idea of forming a group that would agree to buy a certain amount of produce from growers. The farmers, frustrated by the rising level of food imports, agreed, and the first CSA was born.

Illustration: Tom Garcia

Reborn in the U.S.A.

In 1985, Robyn van En imported the CSA idea into the U.S. by creating Indian Line Farm in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. It set a precedent for CSAs by establishing a framework for a mutually beneficial farmer/consumer relationship. The members provide initial support for the local farmers by purchasing a share (which feeds two to three people). The number and price of shares vary with each CSA, but typically there are 25 to 200 members who pay an average of $346 each per growing season (which lasts about 22 weeks).

The social and economic benefits of CSAs are outstanding in today’s world of detached food distribution. Money paid up front frees farmers from the burden of annual bank loans and interest, and a predetermined list of customers means that the crops are already sold. CSA-sponsored activities, such as on-farm recipe swapping and volunteer work days, link members directly to their food production, too. A member of the Five Springs Farm in Bear Lake, Michigan says, “With all the food scares these days, it’s wonderful to know where and how your food is grown.”

Members of CSAs keep their dollars within the community by supporting local farming, in many cases organic. Seventy-five cents of every dollar spent in the supermarket covers a product’s packaging, transportation and distribution. “You wonder what the quality of food grown for 25 cents is,” says Kathy Lawrence, director of New York City’s Just Food CSA program. In most CSAs, 95 cents of every food dollar goes directly toward food production.

CSAs also save their members money. A study conducted by the University of Massachusetts found that leaving the retail world behind is cost-effective, saving CSA members between $300 and $1,000 per season on food. “Figuring that a full share at $400 represents only six percent of the $6,500 an average American family spends on food each year…the CSA is a genuine bargain,” concludes the study.

The CSA Farm Network analyzed three different-sized farms in Massachusetts and determined that all shareholders saved substantial amounts of money when CSA share prices were compared with organic produce sold in retail grocery stores. The study’s authors, Jack Cooley and Daniel Lass, concluded that “consumer savings for this comparison ranged from $682.54—which cost the members $450 per share—to $149.08 for a share which cost $250.” The study also pointed out that consumers don’t need to worry about getting their money’s worth, because the harvests produce more than enough produce for all members.

Open to Everyone

CSAs need not be only for the wealthy and upper-middle class. A growing movement is attempting to bridge the socio-economic gap. Just Food, like many CSAs across the country, is working with local community organizations. In East Harlem, Just Food has partnered with the Tenant Association’s Senior Program to try to incorporate the use of food stamps, long-term payment plans and revolving loan possibilities within the CSA framework.

The urban-rural gaps are also being addressed by a close-knit community of New Yorkers. Peter Mann, international coordinator for World Hunger Year and a Just Food Coordinating Committee member, says, “When I go to my CSA site to pick up my weekly food delivery, I leave the subway stress and swirling Broadway crowds and descend into another world…I am learning that food doesn’t come from the supermarket, but from the Earth.”

To find out about the CSA nearest you, call the Bio-dynamic Farming and Gardening Association at (800)516-7797. If you can’t find a CSA farm close to home, maybe it’s time to get a group of families together and strike a deal with a local farmer.