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Community Supported Agriculture: A New Normal for the Post-COVID Food System?

Posted on May 31, 2023

Blog by Julie Laudick Dougherty, owner/operator of Oxbow Farm in Maryland, and member of the Eco-Justice Committee for the Dominican Sisters of Peace

When grocery stores had shortages at the start of the pandemic and the stay-at-home orders took effect, people had more time and reason than ever to start asking questions about where their food is coming from and how to get it locally. Many expanded their gardens or started one for the first time.

Next to shopping at farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares are one of the most popular ways to get fresh produce directly from local farms. While there are many different variations on the concept, the most basic CSA model involves the customer paying upfront at the beginning of the year for a weekly subscription to a box of in-season vegetables. Some CSA farms will allow you to personalize your CSA box by opting in and out of certain items, and some memberships involve volunteer opportunities at the farm.

The term “Community Supported Agriculture” was first popularized among farmers in the Northeast US in the late 1980s, but the same concept was used by black farmers in the south many years earlier. Dr. Booker T. Washington, a black farmer and professor from Tuskegee University in Alabama promoted “Clientele Membership Clubs” where members would pay an annual fee to pick their own fruits and vegetables at a discounted price throughout the season. This model was particularly helpful for farmers who lacked access to capital in the spring to cover seed, input, and labor costs. The annual upfront membership fee solves this cash flow problem and provides a steady sales outlet.

Despite the benefits of the CSA model and its importance in the local food movement, CSA membership numbers for many farms had been dwindling across the country in recent years before the pandemic. Fewer people had the knowledge or time to cook the variety of fresh produce that comes in a CSA box, and there are more convenient meal kit and grocery delivery options to choose from now than ever before. When the pandemic started revealing weaknesses in our industrial food system, the membership numbers for many CSA farms doubled or even tripled, which provided much needed hope for sustainable and organic farmers who had been finding it harder and harder to make ends meet.

Growing your own food or buying from your local farmer isn’t just about your personal health or food security, it is an act of participation in a more just food system, and a way of re-connecting to our original vocation from God: to till the earth and to keep it. Hopefully this trend of people growing more of their own food, buying it locally, and spending more time at home making quality meals will continue as our society returns to a “new normal.” As the pace of life picks up and schedules start getting busy again, take time to consider what you really want to invite back into your life and which things or activities you can do without. If you are interested in supporting a local farm, visit your neighborhood farmer’s market, or look online at Local Harvest to find small organic farms near you: https://www.localharvest.org/organic-farms/.

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