Kitchen Garden

Revolution From a CSA

Corn-rice casserole.

Delicious food can be part of a normal life. It seems important to enjoy food we eat as it results in sustaining our lives in a turbulent world. There is little point in living a Dickensian food culture of gruel three times a day when so much food is abundantly available and recipes to prepare it are ubiquitous.

At the same time, as Raj Patel points out in his 2012 book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, there are more than a billion people on Earth that don’t have enough to eat each day, and another group of even more that are overweight. Along the way, we became disconnected from the flavor of our food, and its purpose to nourish us. Patel argues that being food insecure and overweight are related conditions caused by the system which delivers our food. I recommend the book.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, roughly 10.5 percent of U.S. households were food insecure for part of 2020, or about 13.8 million of them. This seems like a lot for one of the richest nations on the planet, given the relatively low cost of food calories. Our household has never been food insecure and we spent time and energy creating a food system that works for us. Part of it is growing some of our own food. It also includes shopping for the right things versus for everything. Food insecurity is a real problem, something to which most affected in the U.S. appear to adjust.

Joining a Community Supported Agriculture project was a way to know the face of the farmer and how food on our plate was grown. I joined for these reasons rather than any economic advantage, embrace of organics, or lifestyle change. Most CSA farms donate part of their share to local food banks, yet I never sought this form of generosity.

What is revolutionary about the CSA model is they cut out the middleman in agricultural sales, selling directly to consumers. Crops grown on a CSA farm are, for the most part, not fungible, thus avoiding issues related to the advent of middlemen and processors such as one finds in corn, soybean, dairy, cattle and hog farming. By selling direct to consumers, certain marketplace factors and dynamics can be avoided. CSA farmers secure a premium price for their products and their customers don’t mind that more of the cost of food goes directly to the farmer.

The CSA financial model avoids cyclical, seasonal debt for farm operations. Consumers finance farm operations by paying for a share of production at the beginning of the season. The farmer can avoid taking a loan for seeds, fertilizer and other inputs. Debt avoidance is significant and stands in sharp contrast to how a typical Iowa farmer funds operations.

CSA farmers have a working, if tenuous labor process. Wages are low for permanent workers and offset in some cases by providing food and lodging as part of the arrangement. There is a culture of volunteerism around CSA farms that further reduces labor costs. When I worked at a farm in 2013, my labor was shared with other CSA farms in a complicated process of barter and financial settlement. Most seasons I bartered my labor for a share in the farm, equipment, greenhouse space, or specific types of produce, reducing the farmer’s cash outlay. CSA farmers are creative in controlling and reducing labor costs. They have to be.

This returns me to the idea of delicious food. For the longest time I did not taste what I prepared in the kitchen while making it. I made dishes based on habit, recipes, and what was available in the ice box, pantry and garden. I didn’t give much thought to flavor and that was a mistake.

My outlook is changing. As I more closely integrate my garden with the kitchen flavor has become more important. Each small plate prepared is a multilayered work of creative expression. Some days the food is better than others and I’m beginning to appreciate the variation and what it means. Being part of a CSA brought me from being a consumer to something else, to being a person who relies less on the processing and distribution of food by middlemen. That is the true food system revolution.