CSA and the Value of Meaningful Work
By Sage Dilts
There’s no doubt that we’re seeing renewed interest in the arts of homemaking these days, with many people rediscovering the benefits of working in the kitchen and garden. That trend has come as people awaken to the reality that the industrial food system, with its global-scale focus on profit, is not looking out for the health of people or the planet. But we have to ask if a real, working alternative to industrial food production can be created on the home scale alone. Probably not. Most of us can’t plant, raise, and prepare all our food for ourselves, nor should we.
Jessica Prentice, author of Full Moon Feast and a worker/owner in Berkeley’s Three Stone Hearth Community Supported Kitchen (CSK), sees smaller household size and increasing time spent away from home as some of the reasons people buy so much prepared food. “Our food culture doesn’t support home cooking,” she says. “Cooking two or three meals from scratch a day was practical with a bigger household. In addition to the more productive household there was the village scale where the whole community would pitch in to meet larger food production needs. A lot of foods are made better at larger scale but they are not better at an industrial scale. In the middle ground, you can have a group making food for the larger community. This work can replace factory produced food and support local producers.” Prentice talks about a “hunger for connection” that has come about as industrial food production has disrupted our relationship to food, to work, and even to each other. Businesses like Three Stone Hearth are participants in a response to that hunger that can be seen emerging to fulfill a middle ground between home and industry. Operating at a community scale, these businesses are self described as “Community Supported” (CS). The model ignites a remarkable feedback loop:
- People produce valuable, sustainable food through meaningful work.
- Community members support this work through a unique economic model that requires trust, some risk, and investment in the values of local, ecological food, and, in some cases, actual involvement in the work of production.
- The returns on this investment are multi-dimensional for the producer and consumer alike.
One of the most respected voices on the economies of both community and local food is writer and farmer Wendell Berry. In his essay “Conserving Communities,” from the collection Another Turn of the Crank, he frames supporters of the local community as a political body that is beginning to engage in a real way with this feedback loop of community supported food production.
“They know that things connect—that farming, for example, is connected to nature, and food to farming, and health to food—and they want to preserve the connections. . . . They know that work ought to be necessary; it ought to be good; it ought to be satisfying and dignifying to the people who do it, and genuinely useful and pleasing to the people for whom it is done. . . . In many places, the obvious way to begin the work I am talking about is with the development of a local food economy. Such a start is attractive because it does not have to be big or costly, it requires nobody’s permission, and it can ultimately involve everybody.”
In this era of high unemployment, where satisfaction is supposed to come from simply having a job at all, there is not much critique going on over the value of our professional work or whether it engages us in contributing to the well-being of our local economy. The CS food concept started with Community Supported Agriculture, (CSA), which, according to Iso Rabins, founder of Forage SF, could be understood as a program to maintain the lifestyles of small-scale farmers. Community scale production allows small food producers to carve out a living by doing gratifying work for a small market.
A combination of skill and joy applied to the hard work of producing sustainable food can be found across the scope of CS model businesses, which are now ranging well beyond the vegetable patch into the orchard, barnyard, kitchen, and elsewhere. Iso explains that his Forage SF subscribers not only get a box of wild foods collected from the outdoors around them, but they also support the lifestyle and joyful work experience of those who are skilled at finding edibles in wild areas.
Subscription to Stability
The subscription system is really the functional difference between CS food businesses and ones operating under the standard, storefront retail model (or even farmers markets). The system provides producers with money in the bank and known demand at the start of
their work. These are especially helpful buffers in the risky business of farming. Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm, who was among the first farmers in our region to adopt the CSA model, says that the program allowed her farm to thrive because of the increased business stability the subscription system offered. David Evans of Marin Sun Farms admits that if he had it to do over he would have launched his meat business starting with the CSA program, which was only recently added. Likewise, at Nathaniel’s Naturals Community Supported Bakery, Nate Stanis gets to produce organic, naturally leavened bread and other baked goods with known demand from subscribers.
The direct market approach of CSA also means that producers re main connected to the product all the way to the plate. As Redmond explains, “a farmer who is growing high-quality produce can ensure that their name stays with that produce all the way to the consumer. That way they can get the income they are due, versus selling wholesale where the source becomes lost. The CSA makes the farmer both traceable and responsible.”
A common concern with the CS model is that it offers limited choice for the subscriber. In the case of locally farmed products, the limits are based on what nature and the seasons offer, but also on decisions made by the producer on what to raise and how it’s going to be done, for example, through sustainable, ecological, and/or organic practices. The limits can be off-putting to many consumers, but for Redmond, who has seen years and years of customers evolve into CSA devotees, that response can be a matter of perception and habit:
“We are sort of brainwashed into thinking that grocery stores are more convenient, and that the best way to buy food is to choose from what is in the produce aisle. There is actually less choice in the store because the offerings are narrowed to those veggies that are big sellers. When you get a CSA box you realize that your choice [at the store] was really limited, and because the quality is low, you see that even without choice, the value is higher in the [CSA] box. There is a greater variety because the farm is able to grow and offer an interesting assortment.
The question of value is also on the minds of consumers considering whether they should subscribe to a CS-model business. With farm produce, that value will fluctuate, but it tends to balance out through the year, so while $17 may seem steep for the fruits and vegetables populating a CSA box in winter, the same $17 box in summer may seem to be overflowing with bounty. Subscribers to Marin Sun Farms’ CSA program will often find very valuable cuts of meat in their weekly box as well as some that are less valuable (read; less familiar) and require a more open-minded approach.
Bringing it Home
Part of the beauty of the CS model is in the way it supports and encourages home-scale efforts. Using local foods to cook wholesome meals from scratch requires a reliable and convenient source of ingredients. farmers markets and some local retail businesses are committed o carrying local, sustainably produced foods, but the CS model meets consumers on a more direct level. Costs are predictable, and the fact of getting the food is also known, so meal planning becomes necessary, and more integrated into daily life. David Evans says of his Marin Sun arms CSA program that it seems to be “family building and community building. Families look at what they have and make use of it. The commitment challenges people to cook at home and the predictability s well as the savings [often 15 percent off retail] means good food s available to those with tighter budgets.”
Households that participate in CS food businesses are functional members of a local food community and economy. This role requires sharing in the possible challenges, risks, and limits and learning about the reality of sustainable food production. Vanessa Barrington, a cookbook author and sustainable food advocate based in Oakland, says that she signed up with the Soul Food Farm chicken and egg CSA just after the farm endured a terrible fire. She wanted to use good eggs and pasture-raised chicken, but found they were not generally available in stores, and getting them at a farmers market often required beating the morning rush. The convenience of a prepaid reliable source of quality meat and eggs was enough motivation alone, but for her the real reason to sign up with Soul Food Farm was knowing she was helping the good work of the farm in a real and committed way.
A vegetable CSA member for years (with Terra Firma), Vanessa says she loved the thrill of letting the wheels of meal planning turn as she opened her weekly box. There was something very communal about going to the pickup site and seeing other CSA members or catching a glimpse of the life of the folks who gave some time and porch space for the farm’s business. She discovered that there were some foods she never ate until they showed up at her house, freshly picked from the farm. Evans explains that when people get over the challenge of having paid for something they didn’t request and with which they are aren’t familiar, they take on the responsibility of eating more than just select cuts of an animal and they learn that a given cut or type of meat, like most things from nature, is seasonal.
The impacts of community-supported food production flow through the relationships created by community-scale production, with rewards extending in many directions not immediately apparent from the outside. Jessica Prentice explains that having a traceable group of customers at Three Stone Hearth allows the kitchen to stick to a core value of avoiding disposable packaging by maintaining a system of glass jar deposits and returns.
Iso Rabins is using the foundation of the CS Forage subscriptions to grow his other pursuit of wild food tours, opening people’s eyes to the role of nature not as abstract beauty but real sustenance. Iso has also expanded the idea of community-supported food to an “underground” (that is, not government certified) farmers market where people’s passion about the creation and procurement of food is shared through a trust not reliant on behemoth bureaucracies.
Iso points out that since there are so many options for where people can get their food, it is a real testament to this area and era that so many people would choose to invest in the small and independent producers that are dependent on the community-supported system. The community scale of production is crucial to a strong local food economy, which is well served by community-supported food businesses. This important cycle of food and community depends on each of us understanding that where we choose to spend our dollar addresses a way of life not just for the people we support but for ourselves as well.
Postscript: Wendell Berry says that local economies promise “not luxury or extravagance for a few, but a modest, decent, sustainable prosperity for many. I doubt it would produce one billionaire.”
Community Supported Kitchen
With cabbage and kombu clinging to our fingers, we each pinch a taste of the “Ginger Mermaid,” one of the more creative sauerkraut mixtures at Three Stone Hearth Community Supported Kitchen. As I crunch on the raw veggies and spices to assess the saltiness required for a robust brine, my mouth waters enough to suggest it has reached the perfect point—a bit too salty to eat but just right for fermenting. Four of us work to empty and pound four bus-tubs full of this almost-kraut into two large ceramic crocks where it will ferment for six weeks before we pack it into glass pint jars to be offered for sale.
Around us, the normal Friday tasks are happening: beef stock from bones of pasture-raised cattle is starting in the bathtub-sized tilt skillets, where it is stirred by a paddle that seems sea-worthy; soaked almonds and granola made from soaked oats are drying in a former KFC warming oven turned dehydrator; macaroons, rich in nourishing coconut and devoid of any refined sugar, come to a caramel brown in the convection ovens.
Amid lively conversation, laughter, and Pandora internet radio, the tasks are all being carried out by people who are volunteering their day to work hard together to carefully prepare delicious, nutrient dense food made from ingredients that are as local and ecological as you can find. Food like this—bone broths, batches of fermenting vegetables, long simmered stews—aren’t so easy to make at home, but the prepared versions sold at most supermarkets just don’t compare to hand-prepared, whole foods sourced from exceptionally sustainable products. Making these foods together with other people is more a joy than a chore; a fact that has been all but lost in our culture.
Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat
Farmer Jane is a joyful testament to the role of women’s leadership in social change, particularly around food. In her new book, East Bay author Temra Costa brings us stories of 30 women who have made it their life’s work to change the way we eat. The various actions these women took toward improving the food system are inspiring. But also striking is the more subtle message about how putting one’s life on a path toward meaningful work can have an impact beyond the level of personal satisfaction.
The Farmer Jane stories speak to these women’s lack of acceptance of a broken food system, and reveal their rejection of statusquo employment. This is true not only of the farmers (urban and rural alike), but also of the advocates, writers, artists, and restaurant owners described in the book. Many of the women achieved their goals by having a flexible idea of the relationship between work and life. They saw a need and created a job around it, often using alternative business models—such as the community supported, subscription-based model—to get their ideas off the ground (or into the ground, as the case may be).
This is a book that both inspires and calls for change, not only in how we eat, but in what we understand as possible in our daily lives and our life’s work. —SD
Sage Dilts authors a blog, mindtomouth.org, on which she writes about the subjects of using limited resources to eat and live well and the use of domestic skills to practically support health and a vibrant regional food system. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nathanial’s Naturals (Four Winds Catering): www.nathanialsnaturals.com
Forage SF: www.foragesf.com
Full Belly Farm CSA information: email@example.com
Marin Sun Farms: www.marinsunfarms.com/meatclub/meatclub.html
Three Stone Hearth Community Supported Kitchen: 1581 University Ave, Berkeley, 510.981.1334, www.threestonehearth.com
Vanessa Barrington, writer and culinary guide: www.vanessabarrington.com