Wen-Jay Ying is the founder and director of Local Roots NYC, a vibrant network of full-diet CSAs throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn.
In the past five years, we’ve had a revolution in the way we eat. There are more ways to buy food than ever before, all catered to our varying lifestyle and dietary needs. But as our food system changes each day with every new meal kit or farm box competing for our attention, what does it mean for the golden standard of local food: the traditional, farmer-owned C.S.A?
What is a C.S.A., really?
This question is urgent. Throughout the country, traditional farmer owned C.S.A.s – short for Community Supported Agriculture, a type of market where members of a community make a lump payment directly to a farmer beforehand for six months of vegetables – have experienced a decline in memberships. According to Small Farm Central, there is a customer retention rate of just 45% year to year.
Our own Local Roots C.S.A has also seen a decline in vegetable orders for the first time since 2011, yet has experienced increased orders for our other share options, like meats, cheese, milk, and bread. Both trends are signs that the home cook seeks more in their kitchen than only vegetables. They now want fresh-baked bread, granola, honey, artisanal jams, and more. Can the C.S.A. model evolve to keep up?
The C.S.A. Before It Was Cool
The C.S.A. originated in 1960s Tokyo, when housewives were concerned about environmental pollution and took it upon themselves to encourage dairy farmers to raise cows on natural feeds by paying them upfront dues, thus starting the Seikyou movement, one of the first grassroots farm-to-table movements. Nowadays, Seikyou no longer only pertain to dairy but connects consumers with socially and environmentally conscious products no matter their origin – from produce to beauty products and beyond.
Inspired by Seikyou, C.S.A in the U.S was formed in the 1980s out of a desire for a direct farmer-to-consumer connection and transparent supply chain. Though not defined with specific guidelines by the USDA, the intention was for a vegetable farmer and eater to share the risks and rewards of a farm’s harvest. A consumer’s commitment to pay for an entire season would offer farmers a guaranteed income while the consumer would have a stronger connection to their food source.
30 years later, the name of C.S.A (which is not regulated except in California) is being adopted by large companies like Fresh Direct and Peapod, who promise a weekly ordering system home delivered, and require no seasonal commitment to the farmer. This provides an unbeatable convenience to the consumer, though has little in common with the original definition of the C.S.A.
In a way, you could also say Local Roots NYC is not a true CSA in its original form. We have shorter seasonal commitments and more share variety, offering products from local creameries and meat farmers. We facilitate the farm-to-city connection with the belief that our farmers should have more time out on the fields than on the computer managing customer service and last-mile logistics. This could be seen as contradictory to the original intention of C.S.A: a direct connection to the farm. But we maintain the values of a CSA, which are a strong connection and loyal support to small farms, fresh produce straight from the farm through a transparent supply chain, and a community driven initiative. So can we call ourselves a C.S.A.? I think so.
As the New York Times pointed out, some farmers and advocates in our small-scale food system seem reluctant to evolve the traditional C.S.A model to cater to the customer’s needs. On the other hand, companies adopting the name C.S.A are forgetting the mission that make this model of food distribution invaluable to small farms and beneficial to the consumer: Supporting farmers financially and getting fresh, local food into consumers’ hands.
With any evolution of a concept, when does it become something completely new requiring its own nomenclature, versus a natural progression into its next life stage? How can we evolve the word C.S.A as gracefully as “Seikyou”, which began with a dairy farm but now connects consumers with hand crafted food items and household goods as well?
With the recent elections, there is even a higher risk of our land being mistreated. Trump’s list of agricultural advisors include large industrial agriculture advocates. Now more than ever we must vote with our food dollars and be sure our money is going towards consistently supporting small farms that are responsible stewards of our country’s land and resources.
If we want to grow a more sincere, localized food system, there must be a dialogue with all components of our local food system: our farmers, entrepreneurs, government, institutions, and eaters – collaboratively, not competitively. We need storytellers to connect us with our farms when city dwellers aren’t able to be on the dirt, and creatives to find fun and engaging ways to present food education.
Collectively, we must:
1. Find ways for consumers to easily navigate between all the local food options and misguided branding presented to them so that they can feel confident that their food dollar is going towards the market and values that they believe they are buying into.
2. Evolve the C.S.A model in a way where it can continue to thrive with the same grassroots values and transparency from which it originates, but still meets the needs of the consumer and producer.
3. Elevate our nation’s current interest in food from trending food photography “likes” on Instagram to cooking at home and maintaining our culinary culture.
Here’s How You Can Help:
1. If you’re new to the CSA concept, try the Local Roots CSA Veggie Seducer.
2.Let us know how you spend your food dollars. Where do you shop, why do you shop there, what role does food play in your life, where do you wish you were buying your food and most importantly, what challenges have held you back from purchasing there? If you’re part of a CSA or were part of a CSA, we want to know why you love it, why you joined, and most importantly – the challenges you face being part of a CSA. Email wenjay@LocalRoots.NYC if you want to be part of this discussion.
What say you?
Have you participated in a CSA? Why or why not? How did you like it? And have you tried on of these pseudo CSAs, and why? Let us know in the comments!