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Organic Justice: Helping Poor People Buy Organic Food Directly from Farmers

For years, people have been trying to figure out how Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects could be made accessible to low income people. Economically, the CSA model is built on farmers' need for capital at the beginning of the growing season. Most CSAs ask their members to pay a lump sum for the entire season, a requirement that bars low-income people from participating.

Many farmers and food activists have been bothered by this, and some have worked together on solutions. Just Food is one well-known organization that develops CSAs for people in New York's underserved neighborhoods. One way they do this is by fundraising among wealthier CSA members to offset the cost of the low-income shares. This solution creates an economically diverse CSA and ensures that the farmers receive a fair price for their products.

But is it possible for a farm to open the doors of its CSA to poor people without working through a non-profit? We recently spoke with one farmer who has found a way to do just that, Crystine Goldberg of Uprising Farm.

Goldberg and her partner Brian Campbell founded Uprising with two intentions: saving heirloom and open pollinated seeds, and getting good food to people regardless of income. After three seasons as market farmers, Goldberg and Campbell started a small CSA last year. It exclusively serves low income people, and the members pay with electronic food stamp benefits, known as EBT.

The USDA, which administers the federal food stamp program, does not allow EBT to be used for traditional CSAs. In order to make their idea work, Uprising had to re-shape its program in two important ways. First, they allowed people to pay for their CSA baskets every week or two, because a pre-payment arrangement would violate USDA rules. Second, in their USDA application to be licensed to accept EBT, they had to describe their project as a "farm stand" rather than as a CSA. Given the model they are using - members pay for the food when it is picked up - a farm stand is in fact the more accurate financial description.

Other potential snags with USDA rules (entering into contracts for food purchases, or using EBT to repay loans) were addressed in their USDA application so that they and the federal agency were clear that the "CSA" was a legitimate use of EBT.

Once their application was accepted, which Goldberg says was a fairly simple process, the farm was given a machine to swipe the CSA members' EBT cards and make the sales each week. The government then deposited the food stamp funds directly into the farm's bank account, thus making the money handling efficient and eliminating dreaded paperwork.

Finding CSA members was also painless. The farmers hung posters and brochures around town and told friends who helped spread the word. Goldberg says that acquiring shareholders was easy because so many people are interested in CSA. Most of the members are signing up again for this year's program, and the farm is already getting calls and email from other people who would like to join.

Throughout several interviews, Goldberg had one message for farmers who might consider starting a similar CSA-type program. The message is, "It's really very simple!" The only unexpected issue the couple encountered last year was the lag time between filing their application with the USDA, getting it approved, and getting set up with their EBT machine. Goldberg encourages other farmers to start the process at least two months before the beginning of the CSA. She and Campbell had an utterly positive experience with their all-EBT modified CSA. "It's so necessary and so appreciated" by the shareholders, Goldberg said. "The hardest part was figuring out who to call to get the application." We'll save you that step - here it is. Goldberg says she would be happy to talk with farmers who are considering starting this type of project, with their entire CSA, or a dedicated portion of it.