CSAs Come in Different Forms to Satisfy Customer Needs
May 28, 2020 04:50PM
By Vanessa Orr
Photo courtesy 412 Food Rescue
There are many reasons to participate in community supported agriculture, or CSAs. By buying a share of a farm’s produce at the beginning of the growing season, it not only provides farmers with money when they need it, but creates a way for people to get the fruits and vegetables they need for a healthy lifestyle while supporting the local economy.
How it Works
Each year, farms offer shares in CSAs, which are usually purchased online. Depending on the farm, CSAs may come in certain sizes, or offer specific products based on what they have in season. While the majority of CSAs span the entire growing season (about 21 weeks), some organizations, like 412 Food Rescue, offer a 12-week option for those looking for a smaller commitment.
“We have a shorter CSA subscription than many other programs—ours lasts for 12 weeks, which provides a good introduction to how CSAs work,” explained Partner Experience Manager David Neimanis of the organization’s Ugly CSA Program. “It’s also quite affordable; the price is reduced because what we offer is considered unsellable.”
According to Neimanis, more than 10 million pounds of food is wasted on farms each year either because of surplus product, or because produce doesn’t meet distributors’ cosmetic standards.
“We created a new market for produce that is too ‘ugly’ to be sold—it’s sometimes misshapen, or bigger or smaller than stores want,” explained Neimanis. “Ironically, the biggest complaint we get from subscribers is that the produce isn’t ugly enough—but it is all edible, delicious, local, and primarily organic.”
412 Food Rescue partners with Isidore Foods in Bethel Park to source its produce, which comes from small family farms no further than 175 miles from Pittsburgh.
Now in its fourth year, the Ugly CSA program provides a 15-pound box of produce to subscribers every Wednesday, with the contents changing from week to week. The cost is $260 for 12 weeks, and the food is distributed at sites in Millvale, North Side, Lawrenceville, Highland Park and in downtown Pittsburgh, among other locations, with the first distribution taking place on July 15 and lasting until September 30.
About 300 subscribers take advantage of this program, which not only provides them with high quality food from local farmers, but supports 412 Food Rescue in its mission to reduce food waste and hunger in a sustainable way.
“One really important aspect of a CSA is that it lowers the carbon footprint; so much produce in grocery stores comes from South America or California, and by buying local, you can reduce the amount of transportation required and lessen fuel emissions,” said Neimanis. “It also saves a tremendous amount of water; the 180 pounds of ‘unsellable’ food we sell each year saves 2,450 gallons of water that is not used to grow more food—that’s equal to a year’s worth of drinking water for 13 people.”
While some national organizations have similar programs, like Misfits Market and Imperfect Produce, Neimanis said that buying local not only reduces environmental impacts, but supports the people who feed western Pennsylvanians.
“Farming is a really difficult industry to be in, and providing this extra income at the beginning of the season helps farmers to grow our food,” he said. People who are not able to use their share—for example, if they are on vacation—can also donate it through 412 Food Rescue to communities in need.
While the CSA program does sell out every year, with about 30 to 40 percent of subscribers being repeat customers, people can sign up to be on the waiting list, which sends out a notification early the next year to give them a chance to take part.
Dillner Family Farms, located in Gibsonia, PA, has a very popular CSA program that they’ve been running for the past 16 years. Their CSA, which runs for 21 weeks from June to October, provides subscribers with a variety of products from the family run, 80-acre farm in West Deer Township.
The farm raises more than 110 varieties of fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs, and a share can be filled with anything from fresh heirloom tomatoes to peas, squash, lettuce and strawberries.
“CSAs are not only a good value, but you know that the food has been fresh-picked that day, which makes a big difference,” said Jane Dillner. “You try our food, and it makes your mouth say, ‘Wow!’”
CSA subscribers also take priority when it comes to getting certain produce. “If I don’t have it for them, you won’t find it in my store,” said Dillner of the market that is part of the farm started by her husband’s grandparents.
Dillner’s offers large, small and biweekly shares. A large share serves a family of three to five members and costs $510 for 21 weeks. Biweekly large shares cost $300 for 11 weeks. Small shares, which serve two adults, cost $335 for 21 weeks, and contain six to eight varieties of seasonal fruits and vegetables.
Those who want to branch out can also take part in Dillner’s egg share, which includes a dozen eggs for 21 weeks for $84, or biweekly for $44.
“One of the things that people really like is what we call ‘Jane’s Specials,’ which offer our subscribers the chance to order extra produce and specialty items from our online store to be delivered with their shares, like raw honey, cheese, flowers, maple syrup and more,” said Dillner. “This is especially popular for people who can their own food—they can add a half-bushel of tomatoes or a half-basket of peaches or an extra dozen ears of sweet corn to their orders.”
In addition to their farm location, Dillner’s distributes at
17 sites in and around Pittsburgh. With farm markets closed during COVID, they have been offering curbside delivery on weekends, and they will adjust their distribution accordingly as things open up.
Aeros Lillstrom, co-owner of Who Cooks for You Farm, says that their CSA has evolved over time from a ‘typical’ CSA to a market CSA to a Choice CSA, which allows people to decide what products they want, how much they want, and when they want it in their subscriptions.
“We started with a traditional CSA, based on what the farm had in season, that we delivered to our subscribers,” she explained. “Once we had kids, we began limiting deliveries and began focusing on distributing at farmers’ markets. Because people have many options at these markets to get what they want, it didn’t make sense to ask customers to just take what we wanted to give. So now subscribers can get whatever they want, as much as they want.”
People purchase a CSA e-gift card at the beginning of the season in amounts ranging from $10 to $1,000, and get an extra 10 percent in produce. There is a minimum order of $20 for home deliveries and neighborhood pick-up, and no minimum charge if subscribers pick up their produce at one of the three farmers’ markets the farm attends, including Bloomfield on Saturdays, Squirrel Hill on Sundays, and East Liberty on Mondays.
“The CSA e-gift card, which doesn’t expire, makes a great perk for employees, and it is also a good way for moms to make sure that their kids in college eat well,” said Lillstrom. She adds that its flexibility also makes it ideal for people with special dietary needs, who can choose what fruits and vegetables they are getting.