A New Twist On CSA Brings Affordable Organic Produce Where It's Needed Most

The Rodale Institute allows its Community-Supported Agriculture members to pay week-to-week, helping make organic food available to all.

January 20, 2017
ASC member picking up share
An ASC member picks up her share in downtown Allentown, Pennsylvania. Cynthia Van Elk

If you belong to a Community-Supported Agriculture program, or CSA, you know that its value isn’t just in the crate of fresh veggies you receive every week—it’s also in keeping your dollars local and improving the health of the soil through sustainable farming. Members of CSAs typically pay a lump sum, usually between $500 and $800, to a grower at the beginning of the year. The farmer uses those funds to buy seeds and equipment and, in return, provides members with weekly “shares” of the resulting produce throughout the growing season. It’s great for farmers because the funds are guaranteed even when the crops are not. But for some families, that all-at-once payment is prohibitive, and pickup locations, often far from urban areas, can be out of reach.

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Enter Rodale Institute. In 2012, the nonprofit educational and research farm developed an ASC, or Agriculture Supported Communities, program. An ASC is a lot like a CSA, except that its members can choose to pay week-to-week. “Thanks in part to partnerships with local businesses,” says the program’s manager, Cynthia James, “ASC has been successful since its inception.” James says she believes the model is replicable at farms across the country. 

The ASC’s biggest boon is its affordability: In addition to the option to pay as you go, the program offers double Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits through a USDA grant, so members can pay half-price for their shares. And because ASC pick-up stations are located at the institute’s farmers’ markets in Allentown, a city of 120,000, urban dwellers aren’t boxed out of participating.


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For some members, like Denise, a resident of Whitehall, Pennsylvania, the ASC means organic produce despite a tight budget. Due to injuries, Denise is unable to work. Before joining the ASC, she shopped at megastores to feed her family of five but avoided organic produce because it was out of her price range and more perishable. Now she uses her SNAP benefits at the ASC market, where the veggies are affordable and fresh. “Food and nutrition are so important to me,” says Denise, whose family has a history of hypertension and diabetes. “I can’t get down in the dirt myself, but being part of the program gets me close.”