You've read about sustainable food and you're ready to make a change, but how do you find it?
CSAs (community supported agriculture programs), provide a direct link between local farmers and consumers by allowing members to purchase a share of a farmer’s crop before it’s produced each season. This allows the farmer to pay for seed, water, equipment, etc., up front, so s/he is less reliant on banks and loans. Each week, usually during June through October, the farmer delivers great tasting, healthful food to predetermined locations. In some instances, members pick up the share directly from the farm. With the growing popularity of vegetable and fruit CSAs, farms that produce dairy, meat and eggs are now also offering shares.
CSA members share in the harvest; during good growing seasons, everyone benefits. When the season is less bountiful, members shoulder the risk. This type of arrangement helps people to connect back to the earth and the food they eat. CSA organizers often host farm days, inviting members to visit the farm and, in some cases, help in the fields. Many also offer recipes and suggestions on how to cook the unique variety of vegetables provided each week.
Characteristics of Community Supported Agriculture
- CSA members purchase a share before the season starts and shoulder the risks along with the farmer.
- Local farmers connect directly with consumers, which helps develop a regional food supply and strong local economy. CSAs cut out the middleman, which lowers costs for both farmers and consumers.
- CSA farmers typically use organic or biodynamic Gfarming methods, minimizing adverse environmental impact and encouraging land stewardship.
- Most CSA programs offer a variety of vegetables, fruits and herbs in season. Some provide a full array of farm products, including shares of eggs, meat, milk, baked goods and even firewood.
- CSAs help maintain a sense of community. Some are dedicated to serving particular community needs, such as helping the homeless, disabled, or youth and low income groups.
If you don’t have a CSA nearby and would like to start one yourself, visit Just Food. Just Food helps establish CSAs in New York City but has great resources to help you start one in your area.
To find CSAs around the country visit Eat Well Guide.
At farmers' markets, producers from an area gather to sell their goods to the local community. They can be inside and year-round or outside and seasonal, in a parking lot or in the middle of a field.
Farmers' markets support a sustainable food system by offering locally and/or regionally grown foods, helping to ensure that small family farms stay in business, land is protected from development and consumers receive fresh foods. Many markets sell more than just fruits and vegetables, offering meats, eggs, milk, cheeses, flowers, herbs, baked goods, wool, hand-crafted items and other goods. These markets provide a direct link between the farmer and consumer, benefiting both.
Farmers' markets have become increasingly popular; according to the USDA; as of 2011, 7,175 farmers' markets operated throughout the US! FFor listings of markets in all 50 states, please visit Eat Well Guide.
Find out which foods are in season at your local farm or farmers' market using NRDC’s Seasonal Food Guide.
A food buying club is simply a group of people who come together to buy food in bulk, thus getting discounts for members. They are usually informal organizations of friends, members of church groups, neighborhood groups, etc., who share the administrative duties (e.g., collecting money from members, placing orders with distributors, unloading food at drop-off sites and dividing up the individual orders). Food is generally purchased directly from a ranch (to get a whole animal), through a natural foods regional distributor, or a food co-op warehouse.
For more information on buying clubs and how to start one, visit the Co-op Directory.
Farmers also sell food directly to consumers through other systems, including:
Farm stands -These range from simple roadside tables offering a single type of vegetable to enclosed structures that sell a wide variety of produce, meats and even baked and processed foods. During the height of the summer when vegetables are abundant, you can still find small roadside stands with vegetables and a cash jar, so customers can pay what they want. Large farm stands can resemble stores and don’t always sell local goods – check the labels or ask if you aren’t sure.
"Pick your own" farms -Some farmers, especially berry and orchard growers, allow consumers to pick their own produce from the fields, usually for a set price by the bushel or pint. This is especially useful for individuals interested in freezing or canning. Some farms also allow consumers to come to the farm and choose which animal they would like before slaughter.
A co-op is a group of people or organizations that come together for each person’s or group’s mutual benefit. Co-ops are owned by members and are democratically structured, meaning each member has one vote. Co-ops share certain characteristics, including:
- They are democratic, volunteer associations.
- They are created to benefit everyone and are, in fact, businesses.
- The only owners are the members of the co-op.
- Individuals who belong to the co-op have a say in its decision making processes.
- They do not exist to make a profit. Any extra money is shared among the members.
- While co-ops have different purchasing policies, most favor sustainable, local and organic products.
If you shop in a large, chain supermarket you can still find local, sustainable and organic produce, but you might have to ask. Check to see if any of the fruits and vegetables sold in your store are organic or from local farms. If signs aren’t posted, ask the store manager to start labeling the produce. Get your friends to ask the same questions.
Ask the butcher or manager of the meat department if any of the meats sold are organic and/or sustainably raised and if they are from local farms. If the answer is “no”, ask that the store start selling the kind of meat you are looking for.
If you feel your supermarket is not selling the type of food you want, and is unwilling to stock it, you can always find other stores. Many areas have natural or health food stores that sell a variety of organic and sustainably raised food. If you decide to switch to another store, let the manager of your former supermarket know. Grocery stores work on very slim profit margins and will generally listen to what customers want.
For many, financial constraints or limited food retail options may make conventional grocery stores the only viable choice. Don’t worry! There are still plenty of steps you can take. Even if there aren’t sustainable fruit or veggie options, you can always try to stick to buying fresh produce over processed foods. You can also search the frozen food section for organic frozen vegetables. Be sure to shop the periphery of the store, where you're more likely to find fresh, unprocessed foods. And if you have to buy processed foods, read the labels and choose options with the fewest ingredients. If you want to buy meat and there are no organic or sustainable options, try to choose meats raised without antibiotics or hormones.
One of the most rewarding ways to eat sustainably is to grow produce yourself! Through gardening, you can eat as locally as it gets, experiencing the taste of fruits and vegetables right off the vine and the satisfaction of having cultivated the food yourself. There are many different and innovative ways to garden—whether you have a sprawling backyard or an urban rooftop, whether you want to do it yourself or take part in a community garden. No outdoor space? Try window gardening. Limited time or funds? Grow herbs. Every little bit of producing your own food brings you closer to eating sustainably. Below are some helpful links to get you growing:
National Gardening Association
Information and inspiration on gardening with answers to questions about lawns, landscapes, trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, vegetables, herbs, flowers and more.
Kitchen Gardeners International
A nonprofit community of over 20,000 people from 100 countries who are growing some of their own food and helping others to do the same. Their mission is to empower individuals, families and communities to achieve greater levels of food self-reliance through the promotion of kitchen gardening, home-cooking and sustainable local food systems. Kitchen Gardeners is a fantastic resource to connect, serve and expand the global community of people who grow some of their own food.
And if it happens that you had a bumper crop and more bounty than you know what to do with, check out AmpleHarvest.org, an organization that connects 40+ million Americans with excess food in their garden and local food pantries.