With food options like grocery stores, big box stores, fast food establishments, farmers’ markets, and Willy Street Coop, why choose community supported agriculture?
“When a consumer chooses to be part of a CSA, they’re not just helping that farmer have a healthy, vibrant CSA community,” stated Claire Strader, FairShare CSA Coalition’s Small-Scale and Organic Produce Educator. “They’re also shoring up the local food economy. That farmer can then supply food to the farmers’ market, the grocery store, and those other important components of the local food system. Every person that joins a CSA, is not just helping the CSA movement, they’re helping all these other pieces of the local food movement, and there is no other buying choice that can do that.”
In community supported agriculture, or CSA, consumers invest in an farm by paying a fee up front at the start of the growing season to help farmers cover initial costs, and then receive weekly boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables. But CSA is much more than a box of vegetables. It is an investment in environmentally and socially conscious farming. It is the freshest food option available. And it is choosing human connection over convenience.
For 25 years, FairShare CSA Coalition has helped build the local food movement in Dane County and beyond by connecting organic CSA growers and eaters. What began as a living room discussion in 1992, became a coalition of eight farms bringing the first CSA boxes to Madison in 1993, and has grown to over 50 farms in the coalition today. From the very start were the core beliefs that CSA builds, strengthens and nourishes a community. The goals from the inception of the coalition have been two-fold: to unite growers toward a common cause; and to make CSA accessible to all.
For many FairShare farmers, CSA is essential to jump-starting their season in the spring by providing the financial security to purchase seeds, supplies, equipment, and more. But CSA also means much more to farmers. “(CSA) has helped my farm and family make a more direct and in some cases stronger connection to my customers,” said farmer Katy Dickson of Christensen’s Farm. “My members feel invested in a farm and are willing to ‘weather’ the ups and downs of the season...Plus my CSA members give me the encouragement and moral boosters I need during the season to know that they appreciate what I am doing.”
CSA provides farmers the opportunity to share with customers the hard work it takes to grow food, get it to the stores and onto the plate. Many FairShare farmers take pride in the impact CSA has on today’s food system, and the role they play in providing healthy, nutritious food to their community. “Most food in our country is grown and produced in very toxic ways,” said farmer Dela Ends of Scotch Hill Farm. “CSA is totally transparent. FairShare member farms add the security of organic certification, which is the only food label consumers can trust to know their food was not grown with synthetic chemicals or GMOs.”
While there are a number of factors why someone may not have access to organic, fresh produce, high-quality foods should not only be for an exclusive group of people. “The healthiest foods should not be the most expensive,” said farmer Cassie Noltnerwyss of Crossroads Community Farm. “But unfortunately, government subsidies for commodity crops have subverted our food system so that the unhealthy, processed calories are the cheapest. It’s important to make healthy, raw, unprocessed foods available to everyone.”
FairShare has taken this issue head-on by dedicating a large part of its funding, resources and time toward increasing food access for limited-income households, while still ensuring that farmers receive fair prices for their hard work.
The Partner Shares Program
The Partner Shares program, established in 1993, provides financial assistance toward membership in a CSA, bringing families affordable farm-fresh fruits and vegetables. For eligible households, FairShare will contribute 50% toward the cost of a CSA share, up to $300. “Seeing fresh, delicious food and a community of people enjoying it is something we want everyone to be a part of, while also experiencing the farms where it’s grown,” said FairShare Executive Director Erika Jones. “I think having access to fresh food is really a right, and it’s something that brings us all together.”
In 2016, the Partner Shares program provided financial assistance to 154 households to purchase CSA shares. One Partner Shares member, Caitlin Schulze, said she and her partner, Adam, have always valued eating healthy and liked the idea of CSA, but like many people, they just couldn’t afford it on top of the non-produce grocery bill. “We wanted good produce but didn’t have a lot of money, and it’s kind of a hefty price, especially all at once,” she said. “With our loan debt, it just wasn’t very feasible for us.”
Through the Partner Shares program, Caitlin and Adam have been able to afford organic produce through Vermont Valley Community Farm, along with the other benefits of joining a FairShare CSA farm: weekly recipes and storage tips, opportunities to visit the farm, and a direct connection with their farmer. “It has impacted (my diet and eating) more than I thought it would,” Caitlin said. “I have always been healthy, but having a CSA made me realize I was buying the same things over and over at the store, and a lot of the time it wasn’t even in season.”
Another Partner Shares member, Tracy McLachlan, wanted to provide her children with healthy food, especially at a time when they were struggling with stress and depression issues, but knew it was something she could not afford without assistance. “In the past, I would have just made do with the food we could get, but I think the stress made me think that it is better to provide fresh, healthy food, and see if that is helpful,” she said. Providing the CSA food to her family had made all the difference, she said. “I think it has helped us all in having enough to eat, nutritious fresh food in the fridge, and really a colorful fresh plate is so much more appealing to eat,” she said. “It has helped me feel better about my parenting to be able to set out salads, berries, cucumbers, and carrots that taste amazing.”
Local organizations are also participating in the Partner Shares program. At Bee Balm Learning Center, receiving a CSA share is not only a convenient way to bring high-quality food to more families, but it is also an educational opportunity for young children, said Administrator Bekah Barrales. “Healthy eating habits start early in life, and I think it is important that we do our part to raise ‘healthy eaters,’” she said. “For some families funding is a huge obstacle to (CSA), and I think it is up to us, as a community, to find ways to help each other. Nutrient dense foods can add so much to everyone’s quality of life, that it is important to make it a priority.”
REAP and Community Action Coalition
In Dane County, there is certainly a strong community of people working to increase food access: REAP Food Group is bringing farm fresh snacks into the classroom with farm-to-school, Second Harvest is signing up more people for SNAP to increase their grocery purchasing power, and Community Action Coalition (CAC) is working on incentives for purchasing fresh foods with SNAP through the farmers market Double Dollars program, to name a few.
And rather than creating competition, it is important to forge connections between these groups to work toward a common goal. “We recognize (at CAC), and many other organizations recognize, that food is critical to nourishing the minds and the bodies of the people who make our city great, and who are going to drive positive change in our community,” said Erica Anderson of the CAC. “Before any progress can be made, people have to be fed. I think there are so many commonalities between people working in the food system.”
FairShare is working hard to maintain CSA as the foundation of a healthy, local food system, while also forging connections by working with food pantries, farmers markets, and other community members and organizations.
Today, CSA farmers face many challenges amid a complex and evolving food system. How can CSA compete with the price of cheap food options, or the convenience of grocery stores? In community supported agriculture, the answer lies in connecting with one another, and investing in food that has a story behind it. It’s about knowing where and how food is grown, who’s growing it and how those practices impact the land, the environment and people.
FairShare has grown and changed tremendously over the last 25 years, but still holds firm to its original goals. “We want to strengthen farms and the connections between people and the land and where their food comes from,” said Executive Director Erika Jones. “With these strong connections, people will be better equipped to understand and act for the good of the whole food system.”
FairShare believes that because of these connections, CSA is more than just one local food option—it is the backbone of a strong local food system.