Food & Restaurant Livelihood Local Economy New Economics

The Basic Economics of Food

Nov 03, 2017 CWN

Sharing With CSAs and Food Banks

By Paul Smart

    We’ve entered the season of shared meals, of giving food. It’s also that time of year when those of us with a locavore bent start looking around for new sources of fresh veggies that don’t involve long journeys to market in refrigerated shipping containers. It’s when our heritage of community, of gifting others as well as wanting more, gets pulled to the forefront of our hearts and minds.

    I think of all this, of CSAs and good local food, as well as ways to give it to others in greater need, just as my family’s getting ready to move to the Hudson Valley’s largest city (outside NYC), Albany, where it turns out there’s an urban farm practically across the street where we’ll be living. The Radix Ecological Sustainability Center has built a solar heated bioshelter greenhouse that contains an integrated food production system involving fish, plants, rabbits, worms, chickens, ducks, silkworms, and even black soldier flies. We’ll be buying a weekly share of what they produce through the winter months; call it one of the side benefits of the new urban farming phenomenon that’s been building around the globe for the last half century, and helping revive former “food deserts” from Detroit to New York City, where the City Department of Environmental Protection has created new programs working with stormwater runoff to build rooftop, hydroponic and other year-round gardens.

    But what to do further down the Hudson Valley, where this idea of urban farming is just getting traction in small cities such as Kingston, Poughkeepsie, Beacon and Newburgh, and officials are looking at what’s needed in zoning terms, as well as funding? Things are working during the growing and harvest seasons. We’ve noticed some ambitious hydroponic, aquaculture, and extended greenhouse projects getting started. Enter, as a holding pattern, the already-existent reality of community-supported agriculture, long established in the region and now shifting into winter CSA shares via such entities as Rondout Valley Organics, the burgeoning Field Goods operation that works with a variety of local farms up and down the Hudson Valley, and the one-time pick-up quick-frozen Farm Bridge Shares, as well as a number of other farms that provide eggs and fresh meat year round. There’s some great farm markets and cooperatives that work with those who grow year-round, make kale and other seasonally-hardy items or frozen goods available in the coming months.

    All of this is part of a new economic trend, a supply created to meet growing demand, that’s been growing since the CSA movement arose in the 1980s out of Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic farming ideal via a number of post-“Back to Nature” experiments in Switzerland and Japan in the previous decades. Since then, the movement has organized and grown to over 13,000 community-supported farms worldwide, with the Hudson Valley’s Roxbury Farm, in Columbia County, and Phillies Bridge, outside New Paltz, considered among its leaders.

    The idea behind CSAs is simple: to create an alternative, direct producer-consumer market that frees up capital when it’s needed by a farm, without having to rely on banks to keep such entities afloat. As the egalitarian Wikipedia has put it, succinctly, “the goals of the first CSA model in the US were to have the producer and consumer to come into the market as equals and make an exchange with fair prices and fair wages.” Does the system work perfectly? Does anything? Challenges include the need to add value, based on the greater diversity of crops needed to satisfy a diverse community; farmers tending to undercut their own costs in such diversification; and the seasonality of agriculture (and added costs of farming inside in our Northeast winters).

    As for the idea of giving food that rushes into communal view this time of year, it turns out that it, too, has ties back into the 1980s, at least in terms of its modern-day distribution model utilizing food banks of various sizes warehousing much of what ends up in more community-direct food pantries and similarly-named programs. The first such system was set up in 1967, when a number of states began shifting away from an earlier federal system that had seen food surpluses distributed through what were then called welfare offices instead of less direct food stamps (I still remember the government-stamped cans and boxes my mother, a social worker, would occasionally bring back to our home). That coincided with a growing realization that despite years of affluence following the Great Depression and rationing of World War II, our nation’s hunger persisted. Many still needed food as well as services.

    Enter the Reagan years of the 1980s, when congressional efforts to improve social services for our nation’s poor were met with a conservative reaction that felt enough was enough. The result was a push against those needing help in the food stamp program and a return to privatized charity, which many felt humiliated those needing to be seen going to food pantries. As the years of ending “welfare as we know it” lasted into the Clinton years, food banks grew around the country, and even started appearing in Canada and Europe. With the more recent economic downturn that started in 2007, the phenomenon went worldwide to the point where there’s now even a Global FoodBanking Network.

    Some say this shift back to the ideal of private, “community” charity behind food banks and pantries, versus the public assistance programs that predominated throughout so much of the 20th century, has allowed national economics to concentrate more on issues involving accumulation of capital, and overall growth, rather than equitable distribution and the meeting of needs. Think in terms of supply and demand, where the supply rules more than it did. And many more now talk about how the whole idea of such entities as the commendably altruistic Food Bank of the Hudson Valley and its offshoots—part of both the powerfully organized Regional Food Bank of Northeast New York and even more massive Feeding America effort, a nationwide network of more than 200 regional food banks that feed more than 46 million people through food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and other community-based agencies and add up to being the nation’s third largest charity—need to work harder now to incorporate fresh, locally grown foods into their mix.

    Ah, the complexities of food and economics. Then again, such happens whenever you pull economics back down to their basics involving sustenance and habitation. Or right—health, too. Happy Thanksgiving!