Unpacking the good: Community Supported Agriculture
Anna Kiss Mauser-Martinez sees her work leading City Fresh, the community supported agriculture (CSA) program that emerged in the early 2000s from Oberlin, as part of an essential re-ordering of how food is grown, moves from farm to plate, and is consumed by those of us living in Lakewood, Cleveland Heights, Cleveland and points between. CSAs are a consumer program that supports local farming. It does this by a simple yet essential contract where we eaters pre-order and pay for a season's "share" of the farmer's crop which he or she delivers to a neighborhood pick-up location—to be collected in a box that changes week by week depending on what's ripe for the picking.
CSAs are also like a wake-up call at a time when it has been hard to not snooze a little on the mega impact of farming. It feels good to support a product that is grown by a small farmer living within a short drive of here who is doing what they're doing to support their family and repair the damage modern living has done to the environment.
Mauser-Martinez and Ohio City Farm Manager Michael Bartunek are two of the leaders of the current set of CSAs. They have the task of convincing us that self care and sustainable agriculture are equivalent. During the pandemic, we all got a little break and had fun pushing buttons for food, home delivered, but that short-term buzz can't compare to the long-term connection a CSA makes to community and farmers sewing their field with plants —food that has a story.
"It comes out of this ethos of wanting to slow down and take time to taste food, experiment, and nourish yourself and your family," she says, "understanding how food happens is very enriching."
The rise of local food
The scene: Cleveland in 2005. City Fresh was but a seedling. Two visionaries, Brad Masi and Maurice Small put their connections with regional farmers and local community together with a group in Lakewood called LEAF to start a CityFresh pick-up spot, run completely by volunteers.
CityFresh came from a CSA started in Oberlin. Its mission was (and still is) to distribute affordable shares of locally grown food to residents of Cleveland neighborhoods where healthy food was difficult to access, Masi says. City Fresh also included a market garden training program with OSU Agriculture Extension to train people to use vacant lots in Cleveland for small enterprises.
CSAs solve a cash flow crunch for farmers who have to shell out a ton of dough before the season.
"Instead of having to hustle their produce each week (farmers) have a dedicated market of local buyers who have already bought a portion of what they produce," Masi explains.
CSAs today have options built in to support equity — they accept food stamps and they invite wealthier share buyers to pay a little more so that lower-income families can get a discount. City Fresh also makes fresh produce boxes available on a week-to-week basis to make it easier for people to afford.
Where it all started (and continues)
The roots of CSAs can be traced to a Black horticulturist and agricultural professor at Tuskegee University in Alabama, Booker T. Whatley, who advocated for pick-your-own farms and what he called clientele membership clubs, where customers paid up front for a season of food as a way of guaranteeing business. Modern Farmer documents this important but overlooked connection between Black farmers and CSAs, observing:
"‘Buy local’ wasn’t just to support your community. It was survival for Black folks. It was the only way, in many instances, that they were able to survive.”
CityFresh and the Ohio City Farm continue that tradition with its policies lowering barriers to entry and by centering farmers from the BIPOC community again in the CSA. The through line to the Civil Rights Era is undeniable.
It was the late 1990s and sustainability advocates were coalescing around agriculture’s role contributing to climate change. Instead of trucking a head of broccoli 1,000 miles across the country, local food advocates envisioned the CSA as a way of introducing the same food onto local fields and reducing its carbon footprint, too.
"Things blew up for a little while," she recalls. "Global warming was becoming a national discussion in a way it had not been in the past. Organizations got involved; we had Local Food Mondays at (Great Lakes) Brewery. (Cuyahoga County) was starting land banks. There was a lot of discussion and energy."
Ohio City - a farming destination
That energy seemed to carry City Fresh, Ohio City Farm, Fresh Fork and other CSAs operating between farm and city into the present. Ohio City Farm has experienced impressive growth in people buying shares, from 64 four years ago to 250 people last and again this year, plus 50 "late season" share holders and 25 shares in partnership with Frayed Knot Farm, Geauga County fresh-cut flower purveyor, Emily Pek.
So many things set Ohio City Farm apart — starting with the land, six acres of once-unused lawn behind public housing at Lakeview Tower ceremoniously plowed under to make the largest urban farm in the country. The farmers are from Myanmar (Burma) and the DRC (Congo) who were relocated from refugee camps to Cleveland ten years ago by the non-profit organization Refugee Response.
Ever since, they've grown 60 varieties of vegetables and herbs that they sell to restaurants like Great Lakes Brewing, and to walk-up customers at their Farm Stand and through the CSA. It may be run by a non-profit, but Bartunek says there's no subsidy — they have to grow and sell enough to cover the (currently) $13.75 hourly wage for the farmers and the farm's operational costs.
"The farm is a community asset," he says, "(pre-pandemic) people could walk up and eat their lunch on a bench at the farm. If they want to know what's growing, they can just ask."
Many of the Ohio City Farm CSA customers are loyal year after year and a lot of them walk or bike to pick up their food share on Saturday pick up. When the pandemic hit, the numbers didn't drop in the CSA, though, sales to restaurants plummeted. In response, they made it possible for wealthier CSA share buyers to make a monetary pledge so that unsold food could be donated to the May Dugan Center, which runs a food pantry (they raised and made $1,000 in food donations).
"There are people out there with big hearts," Bartunek concludes.
Reflecting on how the CSA and the farmers contribute to the community in a socially and environmentally sustainable way, he figures, "This farm has a lot of story to it."