The members of the Kitchen Table do lots of things in New York City, much of it centered around finding, preparing and eating great food. But one thing we don’t do, for now, is grow our own food. We called Paula at Justfood NYC, an organization who’s main mission is to connect farmers and NYC communities who want to begin C.S.A.s. We called her looking for an already established C.S.A. that was still open, and had subsidized shares, but she replied that she had a farmer looking for a community in uptown Manhattan, and did we know of any organizations?
When we told her that we were a collective who were open to organizing a C.S.A., the rest quickly became history.
C.S.A. stands for Community Supported Agriculture. This is a new name for an ancient practice: a farmer forms a relationship with an urban community, who together buy a share of the farm at the beginning of the growing season. The community is assured a share of what is planted, and agrees that they will accept losses due to drought, flood, insects, etc. The farmer is assured that she or he will be able to support themselves financially throughout the season (rather than relying solely on weekly markets which can bring in no business if, for example, the weather is bad), and agrees to plant what the community wants to eat. The farmer brings the food to the community, who splits it into “shares”, on a regular basis, often every week. This type of relationship was the basis of urban settlements being able to form in the first place: if people were sure that they would have food, they could busy themselves with making crafts, trading and doing all the things we do in cities.
In April and May, we sent information out to people in our communities, and managed to find enough committed individuals and families to fill 15 shares, the minimum that Claudio Gonzalez, a first-time C.S.A. farmer, needed to begin. Each member paid a minimum of half the price of the growing season ($150) by June 1st, the week we began receiving weekly produce.
A C.S.A. Thursday goes like this: Claudio, “our” farmer, brings the food that he grows for us from his farm, Gonzalez Farms in Pine Island, NY, to the Project Harmony Garden, on West 122nd Street in Harlem. When he arrives from his 90 minute journey, around 9:30am, members who live on 122nd Street meet him and help him unload our food and put it on the table in the garden. Claudio tells them how much of each vegetable or fruit there is, and those folks divide by 20, the number of members’ shares. They leave a note for the “lunch shift”, members of the Kitchen Table collective who have been meeting to cook, eat lunch, chat and play in this garden on Thursday afternoons for almost two years. Using the list left by the morning shift, we spend the afternoon sorting the food into 20 baskets. This often becomes a project that the youngest ones ask to take on: during any given Thursday between 12:30 and 3:00pm a visitor to the garden will find several babies, toddlers and children putting green beans in our scale to measure 2lb shares, counting apples, or hefting a cabbage or butternut squash into each basket.
When the baskets are full, most of the lunch shift goes home, and one member, a different volunteer each week, arrives to help facilitate members picking up their shares from 5:00 – 7:00pm. Members come with children, parents, bicycles, dogs and friends in tow to put their weekly haul into bags brought from home. Any unclaimed shares are given to neighbors who live on 122nd Street.
The reasons to join or start a C.S.A. are many.
On a global level, you are pulling out of the flawed and unhealthy food system that most Americans rely on, one that benefits the globalized “free” trade economy of multi-national factory farms and plantations that bring bananas from Jamaica, apples from Australia and garlic from China to the suburban mega-markets and ghetto bodegas of the U.S. This system, which costs more in gasoline used (to transport food) than it does in real wages (farm workers are often paid substandard wages and receive no benefits), is actually far less healthy than buying locally: while large factory farms must rely on dangerous chemical pesticides and herbicides – which further endanger farm workers – small family farms grow many things as a matter of survival, and as a result are able to employ centuries-old organic soil enrichment and protection from weeds and insects.
On a regional level, you are helping to strengthen your region’s food security. This means that you are enabling small farms in your area to survive, which will in turn ensure your survival if food grown and shipped over long distances stops being an option (for instance, due to high gas prices). You are playing a supporting role in your regional economy, keeping your money close to home, and because you and the farmer have cut out the middle man, C.S.A. members pay far less for organic fresh produce than they would – and might not be able to afford – in a store. You are also sustaining farmers who might not be able to spend the money to pay for organic certification, but who are nonetheless %100 organic in practice, which enables them to charge less for their food.
On a local, community level, participating in a C.S.A. supports the farmers who also sell their harvest at farmers markets in your area, thereby keeping these markets healthy and sustainable for everyone. You are bringing local food into your community, as an alternative to the Whole Foods mega store and the high priced health food market. C.S.A.s are also incredible community-building spaces, where neighbors who might normally never see each other get to meet, chat and share recipes weekly, plan potlucks, even visit “their” farm together during the growing season. Often a farmer will supplement their commonly known crops with greens, roots or fruit that are not commonly seen in supermarkets, prompting members to share recipes; or send their members a weekly newsletter with recipes, ways to prepare and store the week’s vegetables, and news from the farm.
And, finally, on a personal level: besides feeling really good about all of the above, when you participate in a C.S.A. you and your family get to eat incredible, fresh, organic food every week from May through December for less than it would be to buy the same amount of conventional (non-organic, sprayed with toxic pesticides) food from any supermarket. Many of us have discovered how eat this way year-round by canning, freezing and pickling food – things our fellow C.S.A. members have taught us how to do. This year, some of us will buy no canned tomatoes because we canned the leftovers Claudio didn’t sell at the farmer’s market. He sold crates of them to us for almost nothing, so we ended up with just under 80 pints that each cost us less than half of the cheapest canned tomatoes in our local supermarkets. With jars of preserved food, and a freezer full of frozen corn, green beans and zucchini, winter doesn’t seem so long.
We’re also excited to do things beyond picking up our “farm share”: In mid-October, a bunch of us will drive out to the farm, help plant the year’s garlic crop, and share a potluck lunch with Claudio and his family. We’re working with him to find farmers who could add grain,meat and dairy to our shares, and create other ways to have our C.S.A. continue through the winter months. And we’ll be traveling up there in the Spring to help him plant our food for the coming season.