Hundreds of cardboard boxes — stuffed with celery roots, kohlrabi and turnips — sit in a corner of Sunnyside Community Services, a quiet neighborhood institution in western Queens, New York. Clusters of people filter through, picking up their boxes as members of the Sunnyside CSA.
Some even stick this month’s bounty of root vegetables in their totes emblazoned with the organization’s logo. A three-year-old, Murray Johnson, shoves his hand into his family’s box and grabs a turnip as large as his head. His parents, Nick and Daya, laugh and hand him an apple for his own kid-sized tote bag.
CSAs, or community supported agriculture, are a system where people buy a portion (a “share”) of a farmer’s harvest upfront in bulk. Members are required to volunteer to keep share costs low. Depending on the particular CSA, members will receive a certain amount of produce at a designated pick up every week or so, usually during the summer harvest. A share is typically enough to feed a family of 3-4.
According to Just Food, a New York-based non-profit organization centered on food education, CSAs allow farmers to properly plan for the season because they know exactly how much to invest. The volunteering aspect also frees up the farmers’ time so they can further focus on growing produce.
Sunnyside CSA, specifically, has a summer program and a winter program. Summer shares are every week whereas winter shares are once a month. While a few CSAs, such as Local Roots, have migrated to delivery instead of pick-up, Sunnyside has adhered to the tried-and-true model in order to foster a sense of community.
“We see a lot of the same faces here,” Daya Johnson said. “At pick-up, a lot of the families in the neighborhood we know walk here, so you can share the walk with them, or pick up their produce if they’re out of town. You have to volunteer, so it’s a way of meeting other people. It’s a nice way to engage with other members of your community.”
In-reach coordinator Memo Salazar, who has been a member since 2006, said that although CSAs can be challenging to enjoy, he finds them rewarding.
“It’s inherently challenging because there are a lot of social factors that make it unattractive to the American way of life, but it makes so much sense,” Salazar said. “You have cities with tons of people and farms with no people. It’s like, how do you connect these people with great food? If you’re a farmer, it’s hard to find people with this much support in a rural area because there’s not that many people, so cities make it really convenient for one truck to deliver a ton of food to people. I don’t know how it could get more efficient than that.”
Because CSAs require volunteer hours and limit what produce one can pick, some people are not attracted to switching.
“Now, you’re giving up convenience and, for a lot people, that’s something that they can’t give up,” Salazar said. “Either they don’t want to or they can’t because of their lives. In our neighborhood we have a lot of immigrants, right? They love the idea, but if you’re a single mom working two jobs with three kids, you’re not going to be able to come between 5 and 8 p.m. on a Thursday night. It just doesn’t work.”
However, when grocery stores like Trader Joe’s are a nightmare to shop from, with lines wrapping around aisles and out the door, CSAs can be convenient in the sense that it is hassle-free.
“It is actually super convenient because we don’t run to the supermarket all the time,” Salazar said. “You go in one spot getting all this food. You know, you’re making all these decisions every day, it just kind of eliminates this neurotic thinking ‘Oh, should I get this or I can get this?” and it’s just kind of like ‘Nope. You just get this. Figure it out.’”
The CSA model does tend to be tough for people who don’t exactly know how to cook a particular vegetable.
“What do you do in the summer when you receive like five heads of lettuce and you have a family of four?” Nick Johnson said. “You question whether the four of you can eat more than one head of lettuce each every week.”
Yet, in comparison with farmers markets or organic produce at the grocery store, CSAs seem to be a better deal for some members.
“I’ve looked at the costs when you like break it down into weeks and how much you actually get,” said member Marny Nofi, 33, from Astoria. “For me, I share a weekly share and that really helps. You don’t need a full share for just one person. It’s way too much food, so being able to split it with others you really do find that if it’s not comparable, it’s almost cheaper than a supermarket.”
The summer vegetable share is $560 for 22 weeks of produce, which calculates to be about $25 per week. Not to mention, each box contains 6-10 different types of vegetables.
That upfront $560 can be isolating, though. Not to mention, CSAs already draw in a crowd of more educated, wealthier and less diverse members — these are the people who are passionate about being healthier and can afford to be, too.
“The sad truth is that the people who mainly support CSAs and farmers markets are affluent white people,” Salazar said. “I mean, it’s probably not just white people, but like [people] who are into the foodie movement who embrace it because they’re more educated. When you’re a Mexican immigrant or whatever, there’s a gap that you’re trying to bridge. It’s a process, but for the people who have benefitted from CSA shares, they’re really thankful for it.”
To be more inclusive, Sunnyside also launched a subsidized share program. Salazar said that Sunnyside’s subsidized shares were what initially drew him in all those years ago.
“Most CSAs have some form of plan for people who can’t afford it,” Salazar said. “10 percent of our shares are designated as subsidized shares. 15-18 of our shares are subsidized shares. We pay half the cost. All that money comes from donations from our membership. $5 from the $20 fee goes automatically to the subsidized program. The rest is through fundraisers, through raffles or straight-out donations, depending on what people want to do.”
Members can get the subsidized shares through filling an application, which is based on the honor system.
“It’s really hard to determine need,” Salazar said. “You’re trying to determine who needs this more, so we tried to create as an objective system as possible. We don’t ask for anyone’s papers or tax forms, we just ask how much do they make and that they write that down. If you’re in a specific situation that — for example your parents just died — on paper you might have made a lot of money last year, but this year you have nothing, we try to make up for that. Then we’ll try to pick the people blindly.”
While convenience and cost are large factors when people are considering joining a CSA, the most prevalent reason is because it’s just plain healthier. The produce is better, fresher, and, some say, even tastier.
“For me, I found the most amazing things,” Nofi said. “I had no idea that lettuce lasts as long as it does. You take it home from the supermarket and it maybe lasts a few days whereas when you get it fresh right from the farm, it lasts several weeks in the fridge, which was kind of eye opening to me. The freshness of the food is really important and the fact that it’s organic, all of those things, and the fact we’re supporting local farms, so that way we can have more very fresh food accessible for people.”
Nofi also said that the CSA shares forces her to become more creative when cooking.
“It encourages me to eat better, but also to experiment with certain types of vegetables that I never knew about beforehand like kohlrabi or celery root,” Nofi said. “Just being more inventive in the kitchen is probably due to the CSA.”
For Annie Frisbie, mother of two girls ages 7 and 10, CSAs are a great way to introduce healthy living to her kids. She has been a Sunnyside CSA member for 11 years.
“I like all the variety and getting different stuff and eating things I might not have ordinarily picked and learning about new vegetables,” Frisbie said. “They like eating different things. It’s more expensive than a conventional supermarket, but we don’t do that anyway. I also like being able to support a farm and get them out to visit the farm.”
That community-building is the heart of the whole operation, harkening back to a time when neighbors cared about each other. The difference? Fresh food is what’s uniting all of these people.
“The relationship we built around our farmers and around our community just
makes it a better place to live,” Salazar said. “That’s the whole point of community supported agriculture. It’s really solidified what it means to have a neighbor and to live in a community instead of living isolated and transient. I really love sunnyside. Part of the reason is because of the CSA, like now I know so many people from the neighborhood who take care of each other.”
At its core, Sunnyside CSA is more than just people picking up their groceries.
“It’s not just about the vegetables,” Salazar said. “It’s a way of life.”