July 2, 2009

What’s all the Buzz about CSAs?

Center for a Livable Future

Center for a Livable Future

Fresh strawberries from One Straw Farm, a CSA-participating Farm in White Hall, MD

Fresh strawberries from One Straw Farm, a CSA-participating Farm in White Hall, MD

In an age where large scale industrial farming operations dominate our food system, a counterrevolution focused on local and sustainable agriculture is growing. Data collected in 2007 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that 12,549 farms in the United States reported marketing products through a community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangement. One of the primary ways this counterrevolution is manifesting itself is through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. CSAs are operations in which consumers pay a fixed fee at the beginning of a growing season in exchange for local, often organic, produce (and sometimes meat and dairy products as well). While reports about global warming and climate change, and the U.S’s astronomical ecological footprint (calculate your own) can make the problems we face today seem overwhelming, CSAs provide an opportunity to be part of the solution, to help make one’s lifestyle more sustainable, more healthy, and frankly, more fun.

As a CSA member, I receive eight local, seasonal, types of produce every week (though some CSAs also sell partial shares at farmers’ markets, where members can pick a given number of items from those available each week). Each week, I am surprised by at least one vegetable I’ve never heard of (e.g. garlic tail). The challenge, as in the Food Network show, Chopped, is to conjure something delicious out of this basket of unknowns. Thanks to some tips from experienced locavores, I’ve enjoyed a decent amount of success (as measured by the approval of my family, as strict a panel of judges as any on the show).

Social Impacts:

In addition to being fun and adventurous, CSAs can help build community by facilitating rich social interactions over food. They can morph cooking, often a chore, into entertainment, allowing friends to get together and have CSA dinner potlucks and cooking parties. Many CSA farms invite their members to visit the site where their produce is grown, to really get to know where their food comes from, the conditions it is grown in, and to meet the people who grow it. Often this is accompanied by good food, drinks, and music in a festive atmosphere.

CSAs help build community by not only connecting people to food, but to each other, in a way supermarkets can’t. In a 1981 report published by Dr. Robert Sommers, “sociologists studying shopping behavior reported that consumers have ten times as many conversations at farmers’ markets as they do at supermarkets.” The report found noted, “a simple change in economic life – where you shop – produces an enormous change in your social life. You go from being a mere consumer to being a participant.”

Economic Impacts:

The economic impact of CSAs is significant too. Joining a CSA helps local farmers by providing them with capital at the beginning of a growing season when they needs it most, rather than at the end during harvest time. Farmers also save on advertising and marketing costs, allowing them to offer CSA shares at lower prices. In general, CSAs are economically more advantageous than farmers markets for both consumer and farmer because they guarantee the farmer sales throughout the season, eliminating the need to build in a buffer cost to the consumer for unsold vegetables. As a result, locally-grown, in-season food is often cheaper than their supermarket counterparts.

Food Security:

Scientific findings show that CSAs also help address community food security issues by providing access to healthy foods. Organic food is often more expensive and difficult to find than conventionally grown produce, making it physically and economically inaccessible to many lower socioeconomic groups. Organic CSAs help reduce these barriers, allowing more people the ability to make nutritional and environmentally friendly food choices. CSA share subsidies, share and produce donations, and work-for-share options allow lower-income members, who might not otherwise be able to afford the up front cost, to participate. Thus, CSAs help support the local economy (especially small farmer), keep healthy food prices manageable for consumers, and help keep communities thriving.

Health Benefits:

The health benefits of CSAs are largely contingent on suppliers’ adherence to safe, sustainable practices that both protect consumers and preserve the environment.  For example, substituting the use of chemical pesticides with natural alternatives may reduce the risk of exposure to harmful substances.  DDT (now banned in most countries) and CPF (registered in the U.S for only agricultural use) have been linked to breast cancer and neurological disease. Prenatal exposure to PCBs, used in pesticide extenders, has been linked to decreased sperm counts and quality in men. Scientific research about the health consequences of exposure to preservatives is also underway.

CSAs help people incorporate more fresh fruit and vegetables into their diets, which helps reduce the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, etc. Reports show that they also help avoid negative health consequences associated with meat from industrial animal farms, including antibiotic resistant superbugs, excessive growth hormones, and diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow’s disease, etc.

Environmental Benefits:

The environmental benefits of sustainable CSAs are substantial. Eating locally – often touted as the core environmental benefit of joining a CSA – is only part of the picture. A recent report found that final delivery of produce from producer to retailer accounts for less than fifty percent of the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with food production and distribution. Thus, much of the environmental benefit of CSAs comes from sustainable production practices they adopt, often out of necessity to make their small farms vibrant and productive. These practices include soil and water conservation, promotion of diversity, integrated pest management, Local farms often participate in a natural cycle in which fertilizer from animals is used to help grow the grass or grains that they then eat. Such sustainable practices can enhance soil quality while simultaneously preventing chemical and fertilizer runoff which pollutes the air, water and soil.

America is taking note of CSAs. Get informed and get involved. Find a CSA near you or find books and further reading material about sustainable food movements.

— Pooja Singal


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