Accessibility and CSAs

Ah, the CSA box. The great equaliser, that which brings fresh, affordable, wholesome vegetables directly to your doorstep — okay, well, maybe to a pick up point — allowing you access to the best that nutrition has to offer. And, of course, ensuring that you have no excuse for not eating a ‘healthy’ diet, because, really, all you have to do is join a CSA. Don’t just do it for you, do it for small farms, and to support community industry, get to know the people who grow your food, and create a thriving, locally sustainable foodshed.

If I sound a little bitter or snarky, well, okay, guilty as charged. But not entirely. I like the concept of CSAs, I value food independence, I love connecting people with their food sources, and I think that getting fresh vegetables into the hands of people who need them is a fantastic thing. That said, I’m also aware of the shortcomings of CSAs, and I refuse to blithely pitch them as a solution to all the world’s problems. It’s not fair to people, it’s not fair to the problems of food security and nutrition, and it’s ultimately not fair to farmers, either, because there are limitations on the function of the CSA as a cultural and social tool.

What’s good about CSAs: the ability to have a box of fresh, seasonal produce delivered to your home or a location nearby so you can cook with a variety of great food over the course of the week. A steady supply, without forcing you to expend effort at the store, often sourced from a farm that uses organic and earth-friendly cultivation methods, even if it’s not certified. The ability to invest in your local community and support a business run locally rather than contributing to industrial agriculture with your purchases.

What’s not so great: they can be cost-prohibitive, depending on pricing in your area, access to subsidies, and the overall cost of living. Drop points aren’t always convenient. The contents of the box can be completely puzzling, with no guidance on how to use them. The contents might be foods that aren’t culturally familiar, or they might include foods you don’t have the time or energy to cook, so they sit rotting in the box until the next week, which largely defeats the point of getting a CSA in the first place. It’s supposed to be eaten, not composted.

And there are some accessibility issues with CSA boxes that I don’t see being regularly addressed in conversations about CSAs are going to save the world. As is often the case, the intersections between disability and food politics get ignored in favour of large, sweeping statements that tend to push the disability community away, making it harder for us to engage with food politics, even though we very much want to. With CSAs, there are specific access issues that need to be confronted, and people need to be talking about what to do about them.

Where are people getting their CSA boxes? Is information about sign up options presented in a clear and accessible way, allowing all people to sign up with ease? That includes d/Deaf and hard of hearing people, blind people, and those with learning disabilities or other cognitive disabilities who might need information presented in a variety of ways so it’s accessible to them. If a farm is using a website, is it accessible to screenreaders? Is it a cluttered mess that people with cognitive disabilities can’t comprehend? If a d/Deaf or hard of hearing person wants to arrange a farm visit, can she be accommodated?

If the farm expects workdays as part of CSA membership, does it have accommodations in mind for people who can’t perform physical labour? Or who might want to participate, but need modifications to make it possible? Are the CSA boxes themselves comfortable to lift and unpack, making it possible for a disabled person living alone to easily get the contents stored away and under refrigeration if necessary without having to wait for an aide? Can a farm arrange home delivery in cases where it usually has a central drop-off point to accommodate customers who may not be able to make the trip because of disability issues?

Do farms offer a disability-friendly box such as a half box or one packed with fruits and vegetables that are easy to handle, prepare, and eat? Can customers select from an array of reasonable options when it comes to filling CSA orders to ensure that issues like sensory sensitivities are addressed? Maybe an autistic customer can’t deal with the smell of tomatoes and other nightshades, for example, in which case she might need extra summer squash or lettuce to make up the difference.

If fresh food is supposed to be accessible to all who want it, and I believe it should be, it needs to be accessible, and advocates for food justice need to be thinking about this as they establish and promote CSA programmes. These kinds of issues need to be considered at the earliest possible juncture in development, working in consultation with the disability community, to provide the widest array of options to disabled customers who want to interact with the local community through a CSA. Community and local farming shouldn’t be limited to the elite, and yet it so often feels like this is the case, thanks to the higher cost and moral superiority that comes with it.

Image: CSA Box Content, Suzie’s Farm, Flickr.