What Defines a CSA and Why That Might Change

By: Justin Chan

It seems like the hottest new buzz word going around the food world is CSA, or Community supported agriculture. For all us city dwellers who most often than not get our produce from supermarkets and may not know yet what a CSA is, here's a simple explanation: Community supported agriculture is a practice that has been heavily championed by local farmers and advocates who believe that local farms offer the freshest and safest produce available. Although many of them agree that it is a better alternative to purchasing chemical-ridden goods from chain supermarkets, there has recently been a huge disagreement among them over the very definition of CSAs.

According to NPR's The Salt, traditionalists worry that farmers have reinterpreted the concept of CSAs and have unfairly pocketed the money that should go to local farms. The traditional CSA model allows members to buy a share at the beginning of the growing season so that farmers have enough capital to grow foods. The payment also covers a weekly delivery of produce.  The model is intended to build a strong relationship between consumers and local farms, but some farmers are changing the model in order to draw customers away from supermarkets.

In some cases, such farmers import goods from other farms to supplement their CSA produce. Others import their products from large, regional co-ops. Some co-ops have run CSA programs that sell products from a combination of farms, while other programs have been run by the customers themselves. In all of these instances, consumers have a larger variation of produce to choose from than the one offered in the traditional model. Another benefit is that farmers sometimes share the administrative costs with their clients, which helps reduce their financial burden.

Still, traditionalists say that the revised versions have corrupted the relationship between people and local farms. Allan Balliett of Fresh and Local said that there has been less transparency and that the food dollars have not been used in the way they were intended to be spent. He considers himself an old-school CSA supporter and stresses that the CSA model is an "emotional and nutritional necessity" that values human and ecological health over profit.

"People should always try to talk to the farmer before they join a CSA," Balliett said. "If they're really concerned, they should go to the farm."

Photo: sierraromeo [sarah-ji]

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