How to make food pantries more nourishing
Farm shares could deliver meat and produce to just about anyone.
By Kathleen Finlay
Community Supported Agriculture (or CSA) is a model of farm patronage that serves both the farmer and eater alike. The consumer typically buys “shares” before the harvest season, securing funds and certainty for the farmers when they need it most. Then, the eater enjoys a weekly distribution of the harvest throughout the season, guaranteeing them a steady supply of local fruits and vegetables that couldn’t be fresher.
But there’s another potential benefit to CSAs, one that’s only beginning to be explored: extending this model so that it can be used to feed the increasing number of people struggling with food insecurity throughout the United States.
In addition to supporting a regional economy and fostering small and mid-sized farms that usually practice top-notch environmental stewardship, getting produce from CSAs is one of the healthiest ways to eat. Of course they almost guarantee that you meet your quota for fresh vegetable servings, but because they offer a dizzying range of vegetables (typically between 40-50 products per season) they provide a full spectrum of nutrients that eaters might not otherwise get. A recent study in Kentucky indicated that people who subscribed to a CSA reduced their diet-related medical costs by $434 in the following six months.
Many organizations like mine, the Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming, have been working on ways to increase access to CSAs for folks with limited resources. While CSAs are more affordable than, say, an upscale retail grocery store or even a farmers market, the model demands payment upfront, posing challenges to those with little cash on hand. This year Glynwood is piloting a program funded through the US Department of Agriculture called “CSA is a SNAP.” It pays farmers up front and then people use their food assistance dollars to reimburse the fund each time they pick up their CSA shares.
But as the pandemic is showing us, there are so many in our community who can’t afford to buy food, period. Food pantries are reporting unprecedented increases in demand.
The CSA model can be adapted to serve those needs as well.
To that end, Glynwood is raising money from donors to contract farmers for the season and distributing their CSA shares of meat and produce to local food pantries. To ensure the funds go to a diverse, and often under-resourced, set of farmers, we formed an accountability council that will help us determine which farmers we engage. And we are helping hunger-relief organizations move more fresh produce, a challenge for them because of the perishable and physically delicate nature of vegetables. But by working directly with nimble local farms, we are able to create new distribution and storage solutions that get the healthiest food possible into the hands of those who need it most.
This model could be replicated and scaled in communities across the country, not only providing food to struggling families, but supporting regional farms that represent our best bet for a healthy future.
Kathleen Finlay is president of the Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming in Cold Spring, N.Y. She is also co-founder of Pleiades, a network of women leaders who address environmental issues.