When farmers and organizations work together, feeding underserved residents healthy food can be rewarding for all.
By Rebecca Heller-Steinberg
Food insecure households – those with limited food dollars and/or difficulty accessing healthy foods because of location or transportation – are typically not served by CSAs. This is understandable, since food insecure households are not a particularly lucrative market. Even for farmers who want to serve such an audience, the challenges are not insignificant. However, as the popularity of local food has grown, as well as awareness about food insecurity, some farmers and organizations are coming up with ways to overcome these challenges.
Binghamton Farm Share (BFS) is a pilot program seeking to improve food access for local residents as well as to support area farmers through a modified CSA format. The project was launched in June 2013 by a unique partnership of community organizations (see side bar).
Binghamton Farm Share partnered with local CSA farms to provide weekly shares to area residents. Although BFS is targeted to food insecure individuals, it is open to anyone. Two of the program distribution locations (a school and a community center at a subsidized housing complex) are on the North side of Binghamton, a neighborhood with limited access to healthy, affordable food due to a lack of a supermarket. BFS has two distribution locations in other neighborhoods too, including one at a church.
Farms partnering with BFS grow, harvest, and package the shares, then transport them to a central location where BFS distributes them to other sites. BFS does the majority of marketing, staffs distribution sites, deals with customer communication and paperwork, and collects and processes payments. The program operated from June through mid-November, with members allowed to join or drop at any time as long as shares were available.
Several challenges were addressed successfully in the first year including affordability, shareholders failing to pick up shares or dropping out of the program, how to sell CSA shares to customers unfamiliar with them, and ensuring shares were being used. Other issues were identified for which the program is still seeking solutions (such as needing a better shareholder tracking system).
To address the issue of affordability, BFS offered shareholders a choice of several different sizes and prices of shares. Members could pay on a weekly, biweekly, or monthly basis with cash, check, or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program aka food stamps). Approximately a third of customers used EBT for payment at least once. Programs planning to accept EBT payments would be wise to apply to the USDA many months in advance, as well as to consider that businesses can only accept SNAP payments at the time when food is received by the customer, whereas a non-profit organization can accept SNAP payments up to 14 days in advance.
BFS also offered a dollar for dollar match for all payments made by shareholders who received SNAP benefits. Matching funds were provided by the City of Binghamton from Community Development Block Grant funds and the United Way of Broome County. Money was also raised for a Share Bank, which enabled members to draw from it to pay for their weekly share up to two times during the season if they could not afford it on a particular week, or failed to pick it up. Shareholders were encouraged to pay back into the Bank if possible to allow more people to use it.
Marketing was also a challenge. BFS used the term “farm share” instead of CSA because it is more self-explanatory. Outreach focused on the freshness of the food, health benefits, affordability, and convenient pick-up locations. The messaging was chosen based on limited focus groups conducted before the program began. All marketing materials prominently stated that the program accepted SNAP and the availability of matching funds. The most successful methods of outreach were face-to-face outreach at events and hearing about the program through another community organization. Marketing was also done through fliers, going door-to-door, local media coverage, and Facebook.
Community Organizations Supporting Binghamton Farm Share
- Volunteers Improving Neighborhood Environments (VINES)
- Healthy Lifestyles Coalition
- United Way of Broome County (UW)
- Cornell Cooperative Extension of Broome County (CCE)
- Center for Agricultural Development and Entrepreneurship (CADE)
Funding for the first season of BFS came from a New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets FreshConnect grant, with some initial funding provided by Winrock International. Similar programs get funding from a variety of sources, including contributions from shareholders and farmers, and fundraising dinners and events.
Since the program was targeting community members who were unfamiliar with CSAs, it was important to provide education on how to use the produce in the shares. Staff and volunteers met with each share recipient – at every pick-up – to review items in the box, provide cooking tips for any new items, and answer questions. Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) offered samples of prepared dishes at one distribution site per week and BFS provided printed recipes at all sites. Cooking suggestions and recipes were also shared via email and Facebook.
Although the program is primarily intended to increase food access, a secondary goal is to support local farmers. Though programs like this offer a way for CSA farmers to reach new markets and sell more shares, it is important that the motivation for participating is not solely financial, but also a strong belief in increasing access to healthy, affordable food. Farmers are often expected to be actively engaged in the program. BFS highly values farmer participation and feedback and believes it is essential for farmers to be involved in shaping the program, including providing input about program structure.
A program like this could be a great opportunity for a new CSA farmer in that much of the logistics are handled by the program. Program grants may also include money for technical assistance to farmers involved in the program. BFS helped one farm, that was new to CSA, to develop their share sizing and pricing. However, all farmers need to consider the ways in which such programs differ from a typical CSA and whether that will work for them. Farmers should decide the minimum number of shares they need to sell as well as designating a maximum number of shares sold through such a program. This can ensure that the farmer has a good balance between shares paid up front and those paid throughout the season. Farmers also need to decide whether they will accept new sign-ups throughout the season. Doing so can be an advantage, as programs can continue to recruit new members to offset shareholders who drop out, but can also make crop planning tricky.
Binghamton Farm Share and other programs focusing on food access can greatly improve the quality and quantity of healthy, affordable food available to more residents of our communities while also opening up new markets and increasing share sales for CSA farmers. The logistics of doing so are more complex than a regular CSA, but farmers and organizations working together can overcome the challenges to make it rewarding for all. For more information on Binghamton Farm Share, visit www.vinesgardens.org/farmshare or www.facebook.com/BinghamtonFarmShare or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca Heller-Steinberg is a local food entrepreneur and advocate and the Coordinator of Binghamton Farm Share.