Building a Food Community

March 1, 2011

This month I joined my first CSA. For twenty-four weeks, beginning in June, I will receive a share of the harvest from Potomac Vegetable Farms and three other organic farms in the area that PVF collaborates with. I am particularly excited because a portion of my share will actually be grown in Fairfax County, only a handful of miles from my house—anyone familiar with this area knows that farmland is hard to come by around here.

Fairfax isn’t the only area in the country where farmland is dwindling. Between 1982 and 2007, more than 23 million acres of U.S. farmland were lost to development, and farmers make up only 2 percent of the U.S. population. More and more of our food supply is coming from overseas (most notably, from China). Between 1993 and 2007, U.S. consumption of imported fresh fruits and vegetables doubled; by 2007, more than 20% of the fresh vegetables Americans consumed were imported.

CSA, or community-supported agriculture, is one locavore effort to combat this trend. The concept originated in Japan and Switzerland in the 1960s and ’70s as a means to increase food security, promote organic farming, and keep food dollars in the local community. The European model migrated to New England in the mid-1980s and has since spread across the United States. Most sources I found counted more than 1,400 CSAs in the country; Local Harvest lists more than 4,000.

CSAs take different forms and offer a variety of products, from fruits and vegetables to meat, eggs, bread, cheese, milk, and even ice cream. Typically, members of a community pay a farmer (or group of farmers or producers) a flat rate for a share of the year’s harvest. Payment is usually made before the growing season so that it can be used to cover the costs of farm operation, including seed, equipment, and employee salaries. Clearly this is a benefit for the farm. As farmer Jeff Poppen puts it, “When a group of people cover the farm’s annual budget, as in CSA, the farmer is able to put all his or her attention into developing the farm’s unique possibilities.” Plus, the farmer is allowed some financial cushion, even if crops are spoiled by weather or disease.

CSA members also reap numerous benefits from this arrangement: access to fresh, local, and often organic produce, exposure to a wide variety of vegetables, and a direct relationship with a farmer, to name only a few. In the past I’ve found these same benefits shopping at the farmers market, and of course, a backyard garden or community garden plot would do the trick (unfortunately, I have neither). What has finally won me over to the PVF CSA, though, is the challenge of it. You never know what’ll be included in your weekly share and in what quantity. Planning good, diverse meals around an abundance of zucchini or eggplant or lettuce will flex my creative cooking muscles.

The other factor that weighed heavily for me was cost. The upfront cost to join a CSA is sizeable, but I’m anticipating a 40 percent savings in my food expenses for those twenty-four weeks (10 percent savings if I factor in the CSA cost). Of course, my current food expenses are significant: about 14 percent of my income. Americans spend on average slightly less than 10 percent of their income on food, a smaller percentage than any other people in history. So, even though I will be spending less than usual on food this summer and fall, I will still be spending (proportionally) more than the average American. By this measure, supporting sustainable agriculture is expensive.*

But, like many before me, I’d argue that not supporting good food and good farmers is even more costly. Conventional, monocrop farming causes loss of biodiversity and poisons our soil, air, and water. Processed and pesticide-laden food jeopardizes our health. Imported meat and produce threaten U.S. food security and cause other, more immediate problems (like the food-borne illness outbreaks so often in the news these days). So, if you haven’t already, please look into CSAs or other alternative food sources near you (for starters, try Local Harvest and Eat Wild), or if you have the means, plant a garden, raise chickens, or keep bees.

Sources and Additional Reading

  • Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996).
  • Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981).
  • Farmland by the Numbers,” American Farmland Trust: Farmland Protection, 2009.
  • Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver (New York: HarperCollins, 2007).
  • The Poisoned Fruit of American Trade Policy,” Food and Water Watch, December 11, 2008.
  • Michael Pollan, “The Food Movement, Rising,” New York Review of Books, June 10, 2010.
  • Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (New York: Penguin Press, 2008).
  • Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin Press, 2006).
  • Jeff Poppen, “Community Supported Agriculture and Associative Economics,” Biodynamics, Spring 2008.
  • Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

*But it doesn’t have to be. Many organizations are making fresh, organic, local food available to low-income families. To cite just one example, last summer I harvested corn at a USDA farm in Maryland for Food for Others, an organization that distributes free food to people in need in northern Virginia.


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