In my first “political note” I tried to introduce the idea that there are political dynamics at work in community supported agriculture. This time, I’ll take up a couple of issues (wealth, access to food, and class) to discuss further. The data, and thoughts about them, come mostly from research I did as part of a class on “Solidarity Economy Movements” at Haverford College last Fall. There isn’t a large trove of academic research about CSA, but there’s enough to draw some preliminary conclusions about how it functions. If you’d like to read some of my sources, I’d be delighted to share.
Community supported agriculture isn’t a static idea to me, but something moving and changing and striving toward a vision of just and sustainable agriculture. One of the values at the core of community supported agriculture is food justice, or access of all people to fresh, safe and healthy food. Healthy food to me is nourishing and doesn’t contain harmful toxins or chemicals and is grown with care toward the earth and workers. CSA, because of its strong ties to communities and food justice, is in many ways well positioned to provide access to healthy food for those who otherwise wouldn’t have it.
Though many people do have access to safe and healthy food through community supported agriculture, they aren’t a random sampling of the population, and most are not people who could otherwise be without. According to national and regional surveys of CSAs, nearly all members have college degrees, and a majority have at least a master’s degree. In terms of income, 68 percent of members earn salaries greater than $55,000. In terms of race, 90 percent of members are white. The fact that community supported agriculture generally serves a more privileged group of people might not come as a surprise, but it does mean that CSA doesn’t currently go very far toward providing access to safe and healthy food to people who lack that access.
The next question to me is whether this situation is intrinsic to the CSA model, or whether it can be remedied if current farmers and members make a few changes. The answer I’ve come up with is that there are small changes which would probably make community supported agriculture easier for lower-income and working-class people to join, and there are some structural aspects that would be more resistant to change.
One issue is that most CSAs require members to pay the membership fee in a lump sum, and commit to paying for the whole season’s deliveries. This provides money up-front for operating costs, and also allows the members to bear some of the risk of crop failure which the farmer would otherwise carry on their own. Unfortunately it also means that people who don’t have the whole amount available, or who are in an unstable financial situation, have great difficulty participating. To alleviate some of that, CSAs could (and do) instead advertise payment plans. They could also offer a certain proportion of shares without the obligation to be a season-long member. For people with low incomes but available time (such as unemployed people), many farms offer working shares, in which members work on the farm in exchange for a much cheaper share.
Beyond the mechanics of how members pay, there is the fact that vegetables from a CSA cost more than conventionally grown produce, and certainly more than many non-produce grocery items. Although I think that food prices will have to rise eventually, and that a 99¢ hamburger is the result of externalizing the real costs to underpaid workers and degraded land, I also don’t think that people with severely limited money resources should be expected to make great sacrifices to acquire safe and healthy food. A sliding-scale pricing system could allow members to contribute according to their access to wealth, though the wealthier members would have to agree to pay still more.
The problem still remains that many people perceive CSA (largely correctly) as something by and for privileged people. And because the “community” in community supported agriculture often means that it becomes a social scene, it can be inhospitable to people who don’t come from similar backgrounds. The CSA members are not the only participants who come from privileged backgrounds: about 75% of farmers have college degrees, and 23% even have graduate degrees, which is far higher than for conventional farmers. CSA farmers don’t, however, make incomes on par with the members. For CSA to work for lower-income communities, probably there will also have to be farmers from those communities. Community supported agriculture as it exists can do work toward creating a functioning model, but ultimately others must adopt it and make it their own for it to grow further.
In my next note I’ll try to take these ideas further and talk about how community supported agriculture can be placed in support of other efforts to create a just society, including those efforts which remove roadblocks to achieving the goals of community supported agriculture, like food justice for all.