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Is This the Start of a CSA Boom?

As home cooks practice social distancing, farm produce that skips the store makes sense

A farmer holds a box of CSA produce. Shutterstock

Marnie Dresser never thought she’d want to sign up for a CSA again. “I tried it once and it felt like too much pressure,” she says. “I just wanted to go to the farmers market.” Dresser is an English professor in Wisconsin and lives in a town so small that its store shelves “didn’t even empty of toilet paper as soon as the other places,” as she describes it. But as spring break at the college where she teaches got extended and cases of COVID-19 continued to spread across the country, a CSA — in which farmers sell “shares” of their produce before the season starts (often in the winter or spring, when money is tight for farmers but expenses for the upcoming growing season are high) and customers receive produce boxes throughout the CSA season — started to sound more appealing.

“I’m kind of a worst-case-scenario thinker,” Dresser says; she couldn’t help but imagine all the ways that the novel coronavirus might affect society. “I wanted to support a local business because I feel beyond lucky that my job still exists at the moment. And I wanted to ensure our food supply.”

She’ll start getting her first CSA box in mid-April from a business called My Fine Homestead. Dresser signed up for a year’s supply of vegetables, eggs, and meat. “There’s so many unknowns and it felt really good to have something within my control I could do to help,” Dresser explains, adding, “It was very much pandemic-driven.”

While restaurants and other small businesses throughout the country are temporarily closing, CSA-like food subscriptions or one-off box deliveries of local food are skyrocketing in demand. Though some grocery stores are adding precautions, such as limiting the number of customers in the store, marking spots on the floor to keep people waiting in line six-feet apart, and cleaning registers, they are some of the last places where large numbers of people regularly gather as the nation faces guidance to stay home. Many shoppers (and grocery employees) are worried they might come into contact with COVID-19 while doing their shopping, and are limiting trips to the store. Despite the fact that there have been no major disruptions to the food supply, there are regular shortages of flour, eggs, chicken, ground beef, and toilet paper, among other staples. Food subscriptions that offer home delivery or a prepaid pickup option are an easy way to get fresh food while limiting social contact.

Though Gathering Together, a farm in Oregon, doesn’t start its CSA until June, company marketing specialist Sarah Reffett says that they wanted to do something in the meantime to bring fresh produce to their usual customers and make up financial losses from closed farmers markets and restaurants, a major source of income. Unlike the CSA, which requires a multi-months commitment, the VSA (which stands for “vitality supported agriculture,” as Gathering Together is calling it) can be ordered weekly and picked up or delivered right to customers’ front doors, depending on location. “The first day we put it up, the website actually crashed,” Reffett says.

In addition to starting earlier in the year, many pre-existing CSAs are starting programs that allow customers to get home delivery or sign up for a shorter period of time — one or a few weeks instead of a season or a year, as is more typical. Often these coronavirus-related CSA programs are given new names to differentiate them from the typical offering.

Growing Washington is calling its offering an “emergency CSA.” Usually CSA customers could expect their boxes to be full of hyperlocal, organic produce and add-ons like coffee or meats. Now, in the emergency CSA, instead of members choosing what goes in the box, there will be a set supply for everyone. The only choice? Whether the box of produce is small or large, says employee Gabrielle Santerre. Growing Washington may have to source from larger farms than usual to meet the increased demand. (Its own farm’s production is still limited this early in the year.) “Its primary focus is to keep our farm afloat and provide food for people in need,” Santerre says. Despite the restrictions, Growing Washington had to stop accepting new orders 48 hours after launching the emergency CSA through an email blast. “We capped it at about 1,300 shares,” Santerre says. Typically in the first weeks of the CSA there might be 100 or 200 people, with more added throughout the season as word spreads. Growing Washington never had so much demand so quickly. It’s taken everyone by surprise. “I feel like I’ve lived two lifetimes in the last week,” Santerre says.

Usually, Growing Washington delivers CSA boxes to pickup locations throughout the Seattle metropolitan area. Because so many customers are staying in their homes, the farm decided to try something new. Hosts can now sign up to be a “pay it forward” location; CSA drop-offs will still occur as usual, but the host will individually deliver boxes to people who need it nearby. “We don’t do door-to-door delivery, but wanted it to be available,” Santerre says, and she’s been pleasantly surprised by the many hosts who have agreed. “People want to feel like they can do something in these times,” she says. “We’re a little nervous, but hopefully they follow through.”

At Oregon’s Gathering Together, Reffett says that because it’s the off-season they have a limited staff, and she expects there to be some “streamlining” in the future for getting deliveries packed and out the door. “The whole thing took off so quickly and we’re still figuring out the logistics of it all and what’s the best way of getting this person their order effectively,” Reffett says. Gathering Together has always offered customers the option of donating additional money to help reduce the price of CSAs for families who need financial assistance, and the fund is extremely popular. She’s seen donations of $5, $40, and even $200 with weekly orders.

“It’s interesting to see how everybody is pivoting,” says Meesha Halm, a San Francisco-based food writer and author of Sous Vide Made Simple. “It’s such a shame all those food-delivery kit companies went under last year, because they’d be making a killing right now.” Halm has been restricting her trips to the grocery store to essential runs, though it’s a hard habit to break. “I’m used to darting out and getting what I want, but the risks outweigh the benefit for me,” Halm says. She has four people in her household, including someone who is immunocompromised. “So every little bit of spinach and fresh produce is precious,” she says. When a local fish company, Four Star Seafood, started offering delivery in her area, it was a “no brainer” to sign up for delivery. “I got my first order yesterday and there was no box or excessive packaging—just a guy showing up with bags of fresh fish,” Halm says. She’s also put in an order for mushrooms with Far West Fungi. Ordering from businesses like these, Halm says, “is a win-win for my family.”

Though businesses that take on box deliveries have to manage the logistics of getting these products to customers, it’s led to a boom time for some small food suppliers that might otherwise be struggling as restaurants and farmers markets close. Groce Family Farm, a sustainable meat producer based in southern Indiana just an hour away from Louisville, Kentucky, relied on local restaurants for 60 percent of its business. Farmers markets are still open (the last two weeks Groce Family Farm has had record-breaking sales), though vendors are spaced far apart, and owner Luke Groce went from doing farmers markets himself to bringing people on to grab orders from the coolers for customers and another to handle money. “We don’t do coins anymore and just round to the nearest dollar,” Groce says.

Groce started getting messages from people interested in his usual CSA two weeks ago and decided to put a number of large home delivery boxes for sale on his website. “They’re between $150 to $200 in value,” Groce says, full retail price with the delivery fee included for the Louisville metro area. They sold 75 boxes in a flash. “One way I put it is that in eight days, I did eight weeks of sales, and that’s with restaurants not ordering,” Groce says. “It more than made up for the loss in sales from our regular customers.” He’s heard similar stories from farmers across the country who offer home delivery. Throughout the United States, people are stocking up their freezers.

Though it varies from business to business and it’s unclear how long the sudden interest in home delivery will last, for the moment, these companies are among the few to be benefiting from the new normal sweeping the world. “It’s strange, with so many people being both fearful for their health and all this economic wreckage, to be profiting in a way we almost never have,” Groce says. “We’ll see what the new normal is, but I think that we’re doing okay. That’s no small thing for a farmer in America today.”