How do we make CSAs accessible for everyone?

Community supported agriculture (CSA) has been around for a while — I’ve certainly written about it, and I’m a big supporter. For a set fee, you get a big box of produce from a local or regional farm, fresh and delicious, and you can use it to cook all sorts of exciting things. I often see people talking CSAs up and encouraging people to join them, so it’s worth taking a momentary time out to talk about a big issue here: CSAs are not always accessible, and not just in terms of disability. There are financial and cultural problems too, and I feel like we should be able to solve them together, making CSAs more widely available, but pretending they don’t exist is not the way to address the problem.

So let’s start with a documented issue that many people turn into a joke, but is actually a big problem: Sometimes your CSA box has stuff you don’t know how to use, or it’s packed with huge volumes of the same thing week after week and you can get really, really tired of it. Some CSAs are countering this problem with a guide that goes in the box with nifty recipes, which is a great way to address this issue — don’t know how to cook this thing? That’s fine! Here are some things to know about it.

I also see some connecting wth community resources to teach cooking classes, which is another cool idea. People like to crack jokes about those who don’t know how to cook, but cooking is actually a learned skill that requires a lot of time and experience. People who are just starting to cook for themselves can’t do a lot of ‘basic’ things and mocking them won’t change that. Providing them with education, preferably free, is a great way to help people learn their way around the kitchen and expand their diets — cooking classes at a CSA dropoff would be a cool way to do that.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about CSA dropoffs. Some groups have a series of drop points and people are expected to get their boxes there. That assumes time, particularly time to go when a drop is open, as well as transportation. Lugging a CSA box on public transit is no joke but you can do it — what if public transit doesn’t go there? Door-to-door delivery makes CSA boxes much more accessible, though also more expensive, because you need to pay someone to do that delivering. How do you address that? Grants? Support from community organizations? These are things to think about — delivery is sometimes a necessity, not a convenience or nicety.

And pricing. CSAs are often expensive. They are. I don’t want to argue about this. Getting a box of produce through a CSA is usually more costly than going to the store, for a variety of reasons. That means that for some people, a subscription isn’t workable, especially if they have to commit to six months or a year. Flexibility in subscriptions would really help with this, even though that presents farming challenges — you set subscription schedules so you can plan ahead. I get that. Not all people can make those forward plans, though. Half boxes are one option, but not all CSAs offer them, arguing that they require a lot of administrative time for relatively low payoff.

The question of what’s in the box is always an issue, beyond allergy accommodations. Some CSAs allow for some flexibility, but ultimately they need to decide what goes in the box on the basis of what is available, balancing the needs of all their clients. But what about people who don’t have access to kitchens, and might prefer fruit in hand or produce they can eat without having to cook it? What are they supposed to do with piles of kale and lettuce? Do you have a kitchen-free box so that, for example, college students can order it and have fresh fruits and veggies if they want them?

Farming is a business, not a public service. A CSA is a business decision and it has to be run like one, even as farmers may want to use it to increase access to fresh, interesting food — unless they’re getting grants or other support, this is not a charity endeavor. But there are some things people can do to make CSAs more accessible and less mystifying, and ways to do them that aren’t snobby and overbearing. So someone doesn’t like kale. Should they be blamed for that? So someone doesn’t recognize a given fruit or vegetable or know what to do with it. Do you really care that much about how unsophisticated and eyerolly that is, or do you want to cough up a couple recipes for them? So people complain about drop points. Is there some way you can think about how to make delivery workable, or at least set up more drops to increase accessibility? So it’s not workable to let people sign up year-round for a month to month membership because it messes with your planting schedule. Okay, but are there ways to help people offset cost, recognising that some people have seasonal income or sudden expenses? That some might not be able to pay up front for six months? Is there a way to balance legitimate business issues against questions of access in order to reach more customers?

Image: CSA, Christopher Paquette, Flickr