June 21, 2012
Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA for short, is often associated with an abundance of kale, collards, and other greens that, for many people, barely fit in the fridge, let alone their stomachs. As is often the case on days after a Tuesday CSA pickup, the topic of conversation around the CLF office is, “What am I supposed to do with all this lettuce?” While the CSA model, in which consumers pay an upfront cost for a share of the harvest on a local farm, began several decades ago with an emphasis on produce, the model has grown to include a larger array of products straight from the farm. Many CSA arrangements are now beginning to include meat as part of their business model.
A meat CSA works in the same way as a produce CSA, and has many of the same benefits. The model supports local family farms by guaranteeing a customer base and providing economic security for farmers in the face of unforeseen natural events such as droughts or diseases that may have negative impacts on production. In addition, CSAs allow consumers to purchase products that have a lesser environmental impact and are not associated with the same public health risks as are products from industrial farming operations. A CSA arrangement may also offer health and nutrition benefits to the consumers by introducing an abundance of nutrient-dense food into their diets. Plus, let’s be honest, the food just tastes better.
The meat CSA at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is now in its second year. In our CSA arrangement, customers can buy a range of chicken and beef products straight from Albright Farms, in Phoenix, Md. Since the inaugural year of the meat CSA, the membership has more than doubled. And given this boom in interest, I decided it might be a good time to gauge the sentiments of this year’s members in regard to their monthly share of chicken, beef, or both. So, clipboard in hand and scribbling notes furiously, I conducted short interviews with members at the pickup site.
First of all, I wanted to find out what motivated people to join. My colleague Brent, who picks up a share of chicken breasts and leg quarters every month, said, “If I’m going to eat animal products, I want them to come from farmers who have autonomy over how they raise their animals, who use ecologically sound practices that don’t put the public’s health at risk, and who raise animals in a way that allows them to exhibit their natural behaviors in a stress-free environment.” But I found that for most people, the benefits of supporting the local economy, public health, the environment and animal welfare are just icing on the cake of the average consumer values of cost, convenience, and personal health.
One member candidly admitted that it “feels free, because you only have to pay once,” while others lauded the convenience of being able to pick up your food at your workplace. For some people, the primary motivation was health. One woman, who was attending her first ever meat CSA pickup, explained that she was tired of buying chicken at the grocery store that is “pumped full of sodium. It’s just not good for me,” she said.
In my brief discussions with members, I also tried to estimate how their CSA chicken or beef fit into the rest of their omnivorous diets. For some, the share represented most or all of their monthly meat consumption. Others estimated that it would be anywhere from 30–50 percent, with the rest coming from grocery stores and farmers’ markets. When I asked how he would use the meat, one member broke into a wry smile and answered, “I’m going to grill it,” simultaneously giving me a look as if to say, “Duh.” Others planned on freezing it and then incorporating it into meals periodically throughout the month. And while most planned on using the meat as a main course, a few considered the meat to be an addendum to a primarily plant-based diet.
What has become clear from my conversations with the CSA members is that people are participating in the CSA for a cornucopia of reasons (food pun intended). But the one unanimous theme that I gleaned from the interviews is that everyone appreciated the higher quality product. Christine, a CSA member, maintains that, from her experience buying it at the JFX Sunday farmers’ market, “Tom Albright’s ground beef is the best beef I’ve ever had. It is several cuts above the natural, antibiotic-free beef I buy at the supermarket.” Christine among them, happy and excited customers were the norm at Tuesday’s first meat CSA pickup of the season. And while everyone may have different motives for becoming a member of the JHSPH meat CSA, each additional membership has the same positive effect on the economic viability of local farmers, public health, the environment, animal welfare, and of course, consumer satisfaction.