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Trial and Error of CSAs and Farm Co-Ops is About to Pay Off in Baltimore City

The United States has lost over four million farms since 1930, which was around the time the economics and sustainability of farming was changed by factory farming and other challenges. Baltimore County has lost nearly 150 farms between 2002 and 2012. Data for Baltimore City was not available; however, the Farm Alliance of Baltimore City estimates there are around twelve urban farms in the city. Baltimore City residents have thus relied on supermarkets' mass-produced food, though for many, even this option is not available, as 20% of city residents live in what the city's planning department calls food deserts. Certain characteristics define the typical household in a food desert:

  • Lives more than ¼ mile from a supermarket;
  • Earns a median household income below the poverty line;
  • Does not have access to a vehicle or reliable transportation; and
  • Is below the average Healthy Food Availability Index score for supermarkets.

Like other cities, Baltimore City has experimented with Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) and farming co-ops as an answer to food deserts and other issues. Farm Alliance member Real Food Farm promotes CSAs, stating that CSAs directly benefit farmers by "providing funds for seeds, tools, and other materials after a long winter without much revenue" and "[guaranteed] sales in a risky growing climate, allowing consumers to share in seasonal variances." A single share for a typical 22-week CSA can be well north of $500, which may be too expensive for the many households who really need the service. Fortunately, the Real Food Farm provides reduced prices and weekly payment plans for SNAP and WIC participants.

Real Food Farm Baltimore City,  Maryland

The Farm Alliance, fully formed in 2012, not only shares an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) machine with its member farms, making it easier to accept various forms of payment, but also sets standards and strengthens relationships between farmers and consumers in the city. Before this type of alliance was made, consumers were left to experiment with CSA providers, occasionally with disappointing results. Carma's Café of Baltimore had a discouraging CSA experience and concluded that a referral or "a bit of digging" would have saved their business "$650 and a lot of disillusion."

case study by the grassroots non-profit The Greenhorns defines cooperative farming as "creating shared farming ventures to address common challenges and provide mutual benefit." In order to succeed, unfortunately, co-ops require a lot of volunteered time and, go figure, cooperation. Due to financial challenges, The Baltimore Food Co-Op in the Remington neighborhood closed its doors due to financial challenges in 2012, even after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake "hailed it as a great way to expand food access and a step to addressing food deserts in the city." After shuttering what could have been a great food source for city residents, it seems that the city became even more determined to consider farms and food business as an urban planning tool.

Compost Area Baltimore City, Maryland

The upcoming Baltimore Food Hub will go above and beyond CSAs and co-ops by acting as an incubator for new farmers and food businesses, a community space for education around health and nutrition, and a resource for city planning and food policy development. Though the food hub comes too late for the Baltimore Food Co-Op, the hub's various partners, including the City of Baltimore, show a growing support for and an understanding of the need for local farmers and food businesses to succeed.

How have CSAs and co-ops helped improve access to food in your city? In turn, what partnerships have been created to ensure the survival of local farms and food businesses?

Credits: Images by Jade Clayton. Data linked to sources.