Can a family afford to buy all their vegetables from a local farm, and should they?

Before moving to Tampa last July, our family had already signed up for a CSA membership at a local farm.

CSA is short for Community Supported Agriculture and works as an agreement between the farmer and his or her customers. Before the beginning of a growing season, customers pay the farmer in advance, and in turn, throughout the growing season, they receive fresh produce on a weekly basis directly from the farmer.

Why join a CSA? It supports the farmer directly, cuts down the middlemen, and provides you with fresh, seasonal produce grown locally by a person you know. Originally initiated in Japan, the CSA model has been replicated in various parts of the world, including Finland, and in the U.S. it has become particularly popular as part of the food movement. We decided to try it out as well.

A one-year membership had to be paid in advance. We paid in April, and collected our first CSA share on the last day of October. From there on, we have picked up a share every week and will continue doing so until the end of May, a total of seven months.

And the price?  30 USD a week or ca 4 USD/day for a large amount of locally produced vegetables is not too bad when you think about the hard work of physical human labor that goes into farming (I realize this is a big amount of money for some, and will come back to that later). As part of our CSA membership we have agreed to contribute to the farm with labor hours; we are required to work for a total of eight hours on the farm during the growing season.

The produce is brought to our weekly pick-up place by the workers of the farm, which itself is located about 15 miles from our house. My initial reaction when picking up our first CSA share was confused. Really, this little? And how come these eggplants are so small? I have now come to understand that this initial share was relatively scarce in produce because the season was only getting started.

There is also no guarantee for the customer on what will be on every week’s share. This is part of the CSA agreement. The farmer is not a robot and a farm does not work like a machine. However, our share is usually a mix of the following: green beans, collard greens, arugula, rucola, mizuna, cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans, chili, pepper, eggplants, turnips, parsley, and cilantro. As the weeks have passed, the shares have also gotten larger.

After being a member for about six weeks now, here are some initial observations on how the CSA membership has affected my behavior regarding food and diet. A sort of customer review of the product (a product it is), if you will.

The CSA membership has definitely modified my diet. Prior to becoming a member, our household would not have seen food items such as arugula and collard greens. However, since we now have ready access to them every week, our intake of healthy greens has also increased, which is great.  Furthermore, we try and cook more according to what is in season, in other words building our meals around what is in the share that week.

Unfortunately, the membership has not reduced the number of times we need to visit the grocery store during a typical week. This was perhaps an unrealistic expectation I had envisioned of the membership – I imagined having access to local vegetables would make my visits to the fresh produce section in a grocery store totally obsolete. This is not the case, as we still need to get our grains, dairy, fruits, and starch vegetables from the grocery store.

Furthermore, the membership has demonstrated me the power of a deeply embedded food culture. Despite the fact that I consider my diet to be quite flexible, I have reluctantly admitted to myself that I really do not like some of the stuff offered in the weekly share. For example, I am not used to cooking collard greens and I find their taste very bitter and strong, and I do not know how to cook them to make the taste enjoyable (Edit: my neighbor just offered me collard green soup which was delicious! Apparently the key is to cook them for enough hours). The farmers do offer a swap option for one item every week, which is great. However, as a Finn, I find myself hoping to receive more potatoes, cucumbers, and tomatoes in my weekly share.

There are also things to be said about my CSA membership as part of the larger food system and a potential way of bringing change to status quo. I do not know what the motivations of my fellow CSA members are for getting involved, but for me and my husband the reasons are multiple. Firstly, it was out of simple curiosity to try out a food initiative we were familiar with but had never tried. Secondly, this is our way of making sense of a new place: we map out the food actors and find out what is local and in season. Thirdly, supporting your local farmers is never a bad idea. Fourthly, the more we know about the commodity chains of what we put in our mouths, the better.

If the motivation to join a CSA is to have a more climate friendly diet, the facts are not always on your side. Despite the warnings we have been given about food miles, in most cases the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions is the act of farming itself, not the way the product is transported. How and what is produced is climate-wise more important than what happens after the harvest logistically (not including food waste, which is a big source of greenhouse gas emissions). If a CSA membership will nudge you and more people towards having a more plant-based diet, then that will be a climate act indeed, as these diets are more climate-friendly than are diets heavy on meat, in particular beef.

If one purpose of food initiatives, such as CSAs, is to promote healthy eating, I am also doubtful whether CSAs will increase access to healthy foods to those who live in food deserts or food swamps. People living in these areas most often have low incomes – how can they afford a CSA scheme? Paying several hundreds of dollars upfront for an idea of healthy vegetables in the future is an inconceivable idea if money is running low. Even if CSA shares could be paid with welfare assistance such as food stamps, access to these vegetables would in most cases still require ownership of a car. Furthermore, access is only one part of the equation. What happens to the CSA shares after they come home is something that is more rarely looked at. How much food is wasted or left uncooked?

To sum up, joining a CSA is a great way to start a journey towards appreciating the origins of food. For many, this can be the first time to get to know the human behind the most mundane thing in the world, food. If you can afford it, you should definitely try it for a season; if not a full membership, then a half membership.

However, CSAs and other food movement initiatives, such as Farmers’ markets, still have a long way to go to be agents of social justice in the food system. By and large, the customers of these initiatives are still dominantly affluent – and white. Going ‘beyond the kale‘ is the next crucial step for food movements.

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