With community supported agriculture program memberships often running $600 or more per share, it can be difficult or impossible for those with less flexible budgets to participate. A new CSA in Brooklyn is addressing that problem, offering sliding scale memberships based on income and flexible payment plans. A share can cost as little as $100, which can be paid in food stamps.

Flatbush Farm Share is named after the racially, ethnically and economically diverse Brooklyn neighborhood where it operates. Renee Razzano, the membership coordinator, says she helped start the CSA because she “believe[s] intensely in the importance of local and fresh foods for individual health and for the health of a community. It is critical that low-income and working-class people have access to whole, local, fresh foods.” She points out that most CSAs in New York City are not oriented toward low income or working class people.

Through a CSA, individuals or households may buy a share of produce for a season from a nearby farm. Joining a CSA directly supports local farms, reduces the pollution caused by long-distance transportation of produce, and gives families nutritious food to eat.

“I personally was concerned about the inconsistency we foodies are always talking about — that being a foodie is a luxury of the better off,” says general coordinator and initiator Amy Seek. “Though all people need to eat, often in lower-income communities it is difficult to access healthy food.”

Seek came up with the idea for Flatbush Farm Share after attending a meeting that she had thought would be about general food justice issues, but was actually for CSA core group leaders. “It dawned on me several days later that I could start a CSA and use it as an experiment in creating a system that would accommodate all income levels,” she says. “Thanks to Just Food, New York City Coalition against Hunger, and our funders, we have subsidies that allow us to provide shares at levels anyone can afford. The only difficulty we have now is getting the word out.”

Flatbush Farm Share has been spreading the word through news releases, street outreach, church and school meetings, a blog, and tables at food pantries. It also has contacted CSAs with full membership rosters to get referrals. Response has often been enthusiastic. “Many members are getting engaged and starting to take more responsibility in the structure of the CSA,” Razzano says, “which is very exciting.”

Seek says this success has been mixed with challenges. “We have a lot of initial interest, but we haven't followed through with signing members in the numbers we hoped,” she says. “We think this is in part due to the payment structure, which requires a certain percentage of investment before you receive anything in return. It doesn't feel right for groceries. We also face a lack of education about CSAs and nutrition — we haven't perfected the process of guiding someone from not knowing what a CSA is to sending in a check for membership.”

Those who have joined are pleased so far. Lailah Bragin, a hairdresser in her late 20s, has further reduced her membership costs by splitting a half share with a friend. Both worried that a half share would bring too much food for one person, and would result in wasted, rotten vegetables.

Bragin wanted to be a part of Flatbush Farm Share because “it looked like a really cool community based project, rather than simply a consumer special organic delivery type thing … ‘being green’ should not just be about buying stuff, but involving communities in a mutually beneficial exchange. Flatbush Farm Share has farm visits, community dinners and other events which take the CSA out of being this typical individualized consumer experience.”

Bragin is eager to start getting affordable, local organic produce every week. While organic food is more readily available in Flatbush than it once was, she notes that she and most others in the neighborhood eat mostly inorganic food because of the cost. She points out that organic food is seen “as this luxury item for the use of the gentrifying population. So it’s really exciting to be part of something that is good for the whole community. There shouldn’t have to be a sick trade-off between respect, affordability and organic apples.” 

MNN homepage photo: Salihguler/iStockphoto