In elementary school, I may not have understood the full social and economic ramifications of my family’s decision to participate in community-supported agriculture (CSA), but I certainly understood the excitement and childhood delight that came from opening a box filled with a weekly surprise. Each Wednesday, my sister and I would marvel at the wonderful new assortment of fruits and veggies to be touched, named, nibbled, cooked and noshed. In the process, my parents not only taught their daughters about food, but also brought them to the forefront of the local foods movement.
Community-supported agriculture represents a growing model for connecting consumers with farmers to provide support for local food systems. Membership in a CSA typically involves pledging financial support for a local farm or farms, such that CSA members cover the anticipated costs of farm operation and, in return, receive shares of the farm’s products. My childhood CSA operated by having shareholders pay a monthly or quarterly fee, for which they received a weekly box of vegetables, fruit, herbs, flowers and even eggs.
CSAs are on the rise in the United States, having grown from a grand total of two in 1986 to over 4,500 as of this January. There are several CSAs in our area, some with drop-off points right on campus. This past fall, Earth Systems alumni Briana Swette and Simon Neely began a successful CSA and delivered weekly boxes of kale, heirloom tomatoes, eggplant and other treats from their farm in Morgan Hill.
I’m in favor of almost any activity that increases food literacy and connects individuals with their farmers, and the Stanford community now has an opportunity to go beyond this typical CSA model and support a more creative framework for strengthening local food systems. A team of undergraduates has spent the quarter devoting their Senior Seminar project in Earth Systems to sustaining the East Palo Alto Farmers’ Market by initiating a new CSA at Stanford.
The East Palo Alto (EPA) Farmers’ Market began in June 2008 “to provide a local, easily accessible alternative food source to residents who now travel distances outside the city to find stores with quality, fresh produce,” according to Collective Roots, an EPA nonprofit organization that sponsors the market.
Unfortunately, the EPA Farmers’ Market is perhaps facing its last season, as it does not provide market vendors with enough revenue to make their continued presence profitable. There are many reasons why farmers’ markets in low-income communities struggle to stay afloat, and some would argue that we should focus on the consumer side, perhaps via educational outreach or broader efforts to restructure food access in EPA. However, the Stanford team working to sustain the market has focused on the supply chain.
Their goal is to guarantee market vendors a minimum income level. To sustain two to five farmers at the market, they are aiming to establish a CSA with 50 to 75 members, comprised primarily of Stanford faculty, staff and graduate students.
Should this new CSA actually succeed, it will be an impressive opportunity for the Stanford community to strengthen local food systems on several fronts. First, CSA members will be supporting local farmers from the Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) in Salinas, Calif. Stanford Dining already sources much of its produce from ALBA, an organization operating on the triple bottom line of “economic viability, social equity and ecological land management.” ALBA educates and empowers limited-resource farmworkers, helping them develop their own sustainable farms. Second, CSA members will promote food security in EPA by ensuring that these ALBA farmers will become dedicated farmers’ market vendors.
However, there’s a distinct risk to this CSA. It’s possible that the Earth Systems students have found a business model (the CSA) that is better for the farmers than sustaining the market. If that happens, the farmers and CSA members will benefit, but the initial goal of supporting the EPA farmers’ market itself will not be met. There’s a simple solution: Farmers participating in the CSA should sign a contract guaranteeing they will stay at the market in order to participate in the CSA.
Once this contract is secured, the novel EPA-Stanford-ALBA community-supported agriculture project will be an excellent opportunity for local food systems engagement. Ideally, the CSA will grow to perhaps even subsidize a differential price range whereby EPA residents can participate in the CSA at a reduced price. Because it’s hard for financially strapped EPA residents to shoulder the upfront costs of membership in a CSA, this type of differential price model, already in place at locations such as the Phat Beets Produce in Oakland, is an obvious next step once the initial CSA is economically viable.
Jenny would love to give you more information about the EPA CSA. For your own weekly box of fruit and veggie joy, email Jenny at jrempel “at” stanford “dot” edu.