Editor’s note: We adjusted some of the language in our headline and introduction in response to some questions we’ve received from readers and to better reflect the reality of the ASC program.
In food desert communities that can barely support themselves, traditional community supported agriculture (CSA) programs often struggle with balancing the need for the farmer to make a living wage and the need for low-cost food. The Agriculture Supported Communities (ASC) program at the Rodale Institute brings fresh, high-quality organic foods to these communities and provides a viable model for new or established farmers who want to enter these underserved markets. Cynthia James, food production specialist at the Rodale Institute, explains the program:
How does Agriculture Supported Communities work?
Well, there are two parts. The first part is membership. The program is designed to make fresh, local, organic food more accessible for people who can’t afford to pay hundreds of dollars for the whole season up-front. Like a CSA, ASC members received a seasonal “share” of produce each week. But, unlike a CSA, ASC is pay-as-you-go. Members choose a share size of $10/week, $15/week or $25/week that can be picked up at a local community site. The season will last for a minimum of six months, but we’ll be using some season extension techniques and may be able to get a few more weeks out of the growing season, depending on weather.
The second part is education. The ASC program is also a training ground for future farmers. We’re launching an 8-month internship program that will teach people everything they need to know to start their own ASC in their own communities.
A sampling of vegetables at the Rodale Institute.
What will a typical box look like?
My goal is to have at least four different kinds of vegetables at all times in the boxes. In the early and late season there will be lettuce, salad mix, kale, turnips. As we progress into the summer, members will see things like carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, summer squash, Swiss chard, and broccoli. We’re spacing it out so you may get broccoli one week and cauliflower the next week. We’ll be planting sweet corn as well.
I have planned for 40 or 50 different types of vegetables right now. Diversity is key. People are always looking for diversity so they don’t have to go to the grocery. We’re only doing vegetables and herbs this year. But, we’re hoping once the program is established we can start adding fruit: perennial berries, maybe some apples during apple season.
How did you choose the drop-off sites?
Community partnerships are really important for the success of an ASC program, so we’ve identified drop-off sites that are already established community resources. The idea is that if the drop-off site is in the members’ own community, it won’t be a big deal to walk a couple of blocks to get that box of fresh, organic veggies.
Abby Dillon at the Lehigh Valley Academy has been integral in getting our program started. She contacted us about getting more fresh produce into the school system and is incredibly passionate about getting good food to the people, so this was a natural partnership for a drop-off site.
We’re also talking with the Food Trust about the ASC program. Sandy Sherman, director of nutrition education, has already helped us identify possible drop-off sites and we’re hoping to partner with them for the season. Since the Food Trust already runs school market programs and adult cooking classes in the Reading area, it would be a natural fit for us to work together to expose more community members to fresh fruits and vegetables.
At each site we plan to do monthly nutrition education workshops for the community as well. We’ll take the share for that week, pull out whatever fruits and veggies are in there, and cook with it. Kale, radishes, whatever it is. We’ll show members what the heck to do with the produce they’re getting and hopefully inspire more community members to join to ASC. The beauty of fresh produce is that it cooks up really fast so even busy households will be able to get a fresh, healthy meal on the table without a whole lot of effort. Eventually we’d like to reach out to the members and have them share their family recipes to incorporate into the program.
What can potential interns expect to learn through the ASC program?
Everything from organic growing techniques to garden planning and soil health, using the right tools and machinery. The goal is for them to start their own ASCs in their own areas, so we will be giving them soup-to-nuts training. But, we do ask that applicants have some prior experience growing.
One of the main components of the program is straw bale gardening. You can place straw bales on concrete, toss in a tiny bit of compost and plant into them. Even places with low-quality or no soil at all can start a productive garden—it can be done anywhere. The straw bale technique is integrated into the plan and we’ll be planting out 250 straw bales here on the farm as a demonstration. There are certain crops that will work really well with straw bale gardening, but you can put anything in them.
A large portion of the training will also be dedicated to setting up the business—writing a business plan, marketing the program, establishing community relationships, providing nutrition education and solidifying partnerships. They’re going to be out there talking to and working with our ASC members and community partners as well as in the field.
Since the ASC format is pay-as-you-go and the farmers won’t have that start up money that comes with a pay-up-front CSA, we’ll help them identify sources for seed money. We’ll also keep tabs on them for two years after they complete the training. We want them to be successful when they are done. We’ve already received more than 25 applications from all over the country for the five internship positions available this year and they are all incredible people!
Cynthia James giving a workshop to local high school students.
How did you get involved in the ASC program?
When I think about it, it really started in my childhood. I grew up in Reading where my mother grew a small patch of vegetables and berries. I studied design of the environment at the University of Pennsylvania and was really interested in sustainable design, especially when it came to growing food.
I was certified in Permaculture Design in Guatamala and I’ve grown food all over the place. I grew gourmet greens for restaurants in the Bay Area and worked for Penn State cooperative extension’s urban gardening program teaching people to growing food in Philadelphia. I’ve always been passionate about growing food and teaching people to enjoy the bounty. It really is something anybody can do.
Who can join the ASC?
Anyone and everyone! The program is not restricted to low-income members; the idea is just that it is affordable for almost anyone. The $25 share would feed four to five people, the $15 share would feed two to three, and the $10 share is for an individual.
We’re also welcoming ASC Angels to help support the program. Members who are able can not only pay for their own share for the season, but subsidize a low-income shareholder and support the extension of the program in the pilot year and beyond. Membership is not required to be an ASC Angel either. Potential Angels can contact Megan Kintzer or me to find out more about helping to get good food to the people and provide training and job security for our country’s urban farmers.