CSAs at the Community Crossroads

Ten years ago, Christina Fuchs, MS, RD, CDN, was ahead of her time. As the coordinator of community health resources at Saint Vincent's Hospital in New York City, she received a grant from the New York State Department of Health to improve nutrition access in Manhattan's West Village. She decided to dive into uncharted territory, establishing the West Village CSA, a community-supported agriculture organization that would provide local, seasonal produce to the community.

In those days, it wasn't always an easy sell. "Now that everything is [more focused on] local and sustainable, it's a lot easier," says Fuchs, who today owns a nutrition consulting firm. "But back then, we really had to take a grassroots approach, recruiting members through street fairs, fliers and word of mouth."

Today, many CSAs nationwide are reaching communities in need through healthy food and nutrition education. Yet to successfully serve low-income communities, particularly those in food deserts, there are obstacles to overcome.

First, there's the issue of location. Between bare-bones budgets and a limited distribution schedule, CSAs typically depend on other organizations to donate space — such as an empty lot, community center or church basement — where members can pick up their shares (boxes of produce, as in their "share" of the harvest). In order to be accessible to low-income members, the distribution location also needs to be in close proximity to their neighborhoods. Many CSAs partner with places of worship, schools, community gardens or YMCAs.

In addition, finding ways to help low-income members pay for their shares demands creativity, especially since many CSAs require payment in advance to help offset the investment on the part of the farmers providing the produce.

The Dollars and Sense

"It can be hard for members to pay up front if they are living from paycheck to paycheck," says Paula Lukats, program manager for Just Food, an organization that connects New York City communities and local farms through sustainable food programs, including CSAs, community-run farmers markets and farm-to-food pantry programs.

Learn more about the Just Food Conference 2013 — happening March 29 and 30 in New York City.

"We're always striving to strike a balance between making fresh, healthy, locally produced food affordable and accessible to community members, while also ensuring that farmers receive fair payment for the food they produce," says Lukats.

Just Food has found success in offering two- or three-tiered sliding scale systems based on family income. In a typical three-tiered system, families with a household income less than $35,000 would pay $350 for a whole share, while those with incomes between $35,000 and $65,000 would pay $450 per share. Families with incomes of more than $65,000 would pay the top-tier rate of $550 per share.

"The sliding scale payment systems work best in mixed-income neighborhoods where some people can pay more for their share and others pay less," says Lukats. "Most CSAs don't ask for proof of income, opting to trust people to choose the level that works best for their family. People are very generous and value that their CSA is accessible to the full community, so groups usually don't have trouble finding people who will pay the higher share cost."

Others develop a payment structure where qualifying members can pay over time instead of up front. These payments may be made in two ways: The first is in installments that must be paid in full by the beginning of the growing season, and the second is in installments spread throughout the season. While this can be extremely helpful to families who might not otherwise be able to pay the full share price in advance, it can be a drawback for farmers who don't receive as much startup money to prepare for the season.

In addition, some CSAs have been able to plug into the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, giving SNAP participants the opportunity to use their benefit dollars for CSA produce. One example is the Long Island City CSA — run out of the Hour Children Food Pantry. "We are a client-choice food pantry, which runs twice a week and helps over 250 families weekly," says Abigael Chagnon Burke, core group volunteer for the LIC CSA. Burke is a food pantry coordinator and development assistant at Hour Children, which serves one of the largest public housing developments in the country. "We strive to move clients away from food pantries through benefits access and nutrition education."

The LIC CSA has seen big benefits by helping members use their EBT/SNAP cards. Members who use these cards are not required to pay membership dues, nor do they need to pay up front. Instead, they make one weekly payment using their EBT/SNAP card at an EBT machine supplied by the New York Coalition Against Hunger.

And the easier those food stamps are to use, the more low-income families benefit. A study published in the May 2012 Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that enabling farmers market vendors to collect SNAP payments via an electronic point-of-sale system saw a 38-percent increase in the amount of fresh produce purchased by SNAP participants.

The Community Connection

Showing people how to prepare fruits and vegetables is key to successfully reaching lower-income members. "When you get beets five weeks in a row, you really need new ways to use them, even if you love them," says Fuchs. "So a huge piece of reducing spoilage is showing people how to use the produce they receive."

Many CSAs have weekly newsletters with recipes, preparation instructions and tips to reduce spoilage. Others have initiatives built around food education, such as Just Food's CSA Chef Program, where members attend cooking demonstrations and can learn about local, seasonal eating and cooking, fruit and vegetable identification, and food storage and preparation.

CSAs rely on a strong sense of community to keep members of all income levels engaged — organizing pot luck suppers, farm trips, weekly chats and recipe sharing. "Helping connect the community to the farmers who grow their food and bringing high-quality, local, organic produce to an urban neighborhood which would otherwise lack proper food access," says Burke, "is an incredibly rewarding experience."

Karen Ansel
Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, LDN, is based in New York City.