Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs – which give people the opportunity to pay in advance to receive a season’s worth of produce directly from a local farmer – have skyrocketed in popularity over the last decade. And it’s no wonder why. Members enjoy the personal connection with a farmer, the thrill of trying new vegetables, and the peace of mind they get from eating fresh, local food.
In Brooklyn, New York the 130 families who belong to the Brooklyn Bridge CSA like those things too. But they also see the CSA as a platform to do powerful food justice work in their community and around new york. And with support from two amazing organizations, Hazon and Pursue, they have built a vibrant, justice-focused CSA that is making a difference on the plate and off.
Joelle Berman (who spends her days as the communications manager for the Foundation for Jewish Camp, and her evenings and in-between hours being a volunteer extraordinaire for the Brooklyn Bridge CSA) spoke with Repair the World about using the CSA model to leverage food justice, the importance of working with a strong team, and why volunteering has become her creative outlet.
How is the Brooklyn Bridge CSA different than most others?
It’s a joint project between Hazon and Pursue that uses the CSA model to advance justice work. That’s an explicit part of our mission. We exist for all the reasons every CSA does – to provide local, fresh, sustainably produced, healthy veggies for people who want to receive them from farmers. But we have the additional lens of incorporating justice work into our model and programming.
What does that look like in practice?
It starts with our tiered payment structure program. We have a base price, a discounted share that is $100 less than the base, and what we call a “sponsor” share that is $100 more. Members pay what they can, based on their income level. We aim to specifically do outreach to low income communities, to help raise awareness about CSA as an option. We also share tons of information on food justice in our weekly newsletters to CSA members.
How do you spread the word?
We have spoken to just about every community organization, school, and YMCA in the neighborhood, and focus on forming partnerships with them. For example, we have a relationship with the church around the corner from the synagogue where we hold distribution. Via one of our members who volunteers with the church’s soup kitchen, we’ve been able to involve the greater community in that work. We have also experimented with partnering with the South Bronx CSA – giving them some of the excess funds we raised from “sponsor” shares to help people in their community join their CSA. We’re hoping to scale up that model with other CSAs in the coming year.
Why do you think other CSAs are less likely to focus on food justice work?
What we’ve found is that the kind of justice work we’re doing is not very popular, and it’s not necessarily because other sites don’t want to do it. It’s that there are many logistics involved with running a CSA, and time limitations are real. For many groups, just keeping the CSA running smoothly is the limit of how far they can stretch.
What inspired you to make the time commitment?
I was a member of the CSA it’s first summer. Halfway through the season I went to a film screening of “What’s Organic About Organic?” and ended up re-screening the film for our CSA, and facilitating a group discussion around it. 100 people showed up to the event! Because of that, the CSA’s organizing group swarmed me about getting more involved. I was reluctant to say yes, but before I knew it I was deeply involved. You kind of catch this fever, and end up way more devoted than you expected.
Does the food justice aspect make running a CSA more fulfilling for you?
It’s sort of amazing. I can’t really imagine a CSA without food justice work – it’s exactly the right use of a CSA. Once you’re a member of a CSA, you have already committed to something bigger than yourself. Why not leverage that further?
Personally, this CSA has become a creative outlet for me. 130 families allow 9 unpaid volunteers to manage their money and make sure a farmer gets paid for his work. No one is telling us what to do. The whole thing just happens on a wing and a prayer, and we keep it going because we care about it. As a volunteer, having that level of trust and creative control is very empowering. I have a very solid connection with the 6 other people on the organizing group with me – even though I wasn’t friends with any of them beforehand. They are smart, talented people and an honor to work with.
Do you connect your service with the CSA with your Jewish heritage?
I think it’s no mistake that there is a disproportionate amount of Jewish representation in our organizing croup. 3 out of the 9 of us work in the Jewish communal world. We do it to manifest values and ideas that are important to us, and I think a lot of that comes from Jewish tradition.
Live in New York City? Join Joelle and other great CSA volunteers and members at the Just Food CSA in NYC conference this weekend!