The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Sustainability Spotlight: CSAs all the way!

UMass Student Farm

If you haven’t noticed, I love talking about food – where it comes from, who’s growing it, how it’s being grown, and where it’s going. Food is something that we all need in order to survive, but it’s also a way that we can relate and connect with each other, how we celebrate, how we remember, and even how we tell stories. Our food systems, whether they are local, regional, or global, make all of this possible. These systems are comprised of a vast number of different types of resources, from human labor to phytonutrients, and everything in between. 

Have you ever taken the time to consider the time, energy, and other resources involved in getting food from point A to point Z? If so, you’ll understand that there are many, many more steps than just going from A to B. Depending on the item we’re consuming, food mileage adds up quickly, along with the fossil fuels required to process, package, and transport these items. However, the distance that a product is traveling from farm to plate is far from the only factor involved in calculating its carbon footprint. In addition to food miles, the type of food, the process for growing it, and the scale at which it’s being produced are other considerations that must be taken into account

In honor of Friday, February 28th being “National CSA Day,” I want to focus on this agricultural model as a means of supporting a local food system. “CSA” stands for “community supported agriculture,” involving a mutual relationship between producer or grower and consumer. Most CSAs are set up so that customers pay a few months in advance for a season’s worth of food (usually including vegetables, sometimes fruit, and perhaps other items such as eggs, meat, honey, bread, and other value-added products), which they then pick up from a farm or distribution point each week during that season. In exchange, the farmer receives this “advance” funding to pay for the resources – seeds, labor, building materials, land, etc. – that are required to support their operation. 

CSAs are incredible assets to our communities, and they are an integral part of our local food system. If you are interested in becoming a member of a local CSA, Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) has created the “MassGrown Map,” providing a repository of the location and type of every farm within the state. These include maple sugar houses, honey producers, pick-your-own farms, and more, and results can be filtered to include only one type of operation, such as a CSA. UMass also has its own CSA program that is run by the the Student Farm, an initiative that provides students with a hands-on opportunity to gain the skills necessary to run and manage a farming operation. 

If you are looking for an opportunity to support our local and regional food economy, becoming a CSA member is one of the most impactful ways of doing so. Not only does this re-invest your money into small, sustainably-managed farms, but you as a consumer get to enjoy a season – or even year’s – worth of ultra-local food. As renowned American chef, author, and world traveler Anthony Bourdain noted, "I would like to see people more aware of where their food comes from. I would like to see small farmers empowered.” 

By investing in CSAs, we enable ourselves to develop a stronger, more compassionate relationship to where our food comes from while supporting those who make it possible for it to get from their farm to our table. 

For more information on the benefits of CSAs, I wrote an article about them roughly two years ago while working for UMass Dining Sustainability.