The Covid-19 crisis is the biggest test in decades of our preparedness for a planetary disaster. As it turns out, it only took a few weeks to expose the vulnerability and deep-seated fragility of our economic and political systems. One of the areas in which we are least prepared for the many complex challenges surrounding us is in our relationship to food. The UK, for instance, imports almost half the food it consumes, and the home-grown stuff is for the most part reliant on migrant workers from eastern Europe. If labour shortages were already a source of anxiety before coronavirus, the prospect that we might run out of food is now very real indeed. On the consumption side, we will remember the bizarre week of empty shelves when rice and pasta were nowhere to be found. Nothing captures our dysfunctional relationship to food as clearly as the phenomenon of panic-buying, where every one of us is made to feel as if we must desperately fend for ourselves.
A growing trend in the food system is challenging this notion and showing how different our relationship to food could be. Community-supported agriculture (CSA), is an alternative approach based on the core idea that food is social: food expresses how much we rely on each other and on our environment, and it is up to us to make that relationship as resilient and sustainable as possible. CSAs can be social enterprises, member co-operatives, or non-profit organisations, and they often rely on volunteers for growing and distributing their produce. The different approach taken by CSAs is clear from the language that they use: CSAs don't cater to consumers, they have members, and growers and members take part together in the good times and the bad. As the lockdown came into force in the UK, CSAs found themselves having to adapt to new rules and find different ways of working together. In a happy exception to the rule, they have been swift to adapt.
In a happy exception to the rule, they have been swift to adapt.
"CSAs have shown for years how to build resilience within communities, and this is something that has also been highlighted by the crisis", says Page Dykstra, national coordinator of CSA Network UK. Like everyone else these days, we're talking over Zoom, and I'm interested in finding out how CSA farms have been coping with the lockdown, and if there's anything the rest of us can learn for the future. In particular, I want to know whether the explosion in solidarity and collaboration in the UK, where thousands of Covid-19 support groups have sprung up all over the country, has been mirrored in the number of people interested in joining the CSA network.
Certainly, for those who work in CSAs, there is little doubt that their approach to food is now more important than ever. According to Mike Hodson, one of the founders in Greater Manchester of Manchester Urban Diggers, "being part of a CSA and seeing demand for produce increase because of things like panic-buying has only solidified my belief that our local food systems need to change."
"We need a network of resilient, local food producers that sell directly to consumers and are not at the behest of large supermarkets. If anything, coronavirus has made me more determined to promote the merits of the CSA format and try and produce more food for people."
It looks like more and more people are also turning to CSAs for very similar reasons. As Dykstra tells me, most CSAs in the UK are now working at capacity, and for those who supply small restaurants or businesses that are shut because of the lockdown, grassroots connections among local growers are emerging to match supply and demand across different farms. However, the recent uptick in demand is not an entirely new phenomenon, and it is in fact part of a much longer story. "Many people are realising how insecure the food system is, and how disconnected they have become from their food supply," says Dykstra. "What is interesting is that we were already seeing an increase in demand before coronavirus."
Many of the challenges facing our food system today, she explains, have been brewing for a long time. A 2013 report on sustainable agriculture published by the UN Conference on Trade and Agriculture could not be more explicit, titled Wake up before it's too late: make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate. The message, in no uncertain terms, is that food sovereignty and food security will be among the greatest challenges facing the world in the 21st century, and that urgent action is needed to make sure that people around the world have access to healthy, sustainable and affordable food. The food sovereignty movement, which includes CSAs, farmers' organizations such as La Via Campesina, and solidarity economy groups all around the world, has been gaining momentum since the early 1990s by focusing on short supply chains, localised food economies and a more equitable settlement for food producers.
One of the most remarkable side-effects seen in this grassroots movement is what seems to be a consistent shift in people's attitude to food. Michael Marston, who runs Gibside Community Farm in County Durham, tells me over the phone that "what CSA brings to people is more than vegetables. For all the people who come, there's a transformation that takes place." It might seem trivial, but somehow knowing the land where your fruit and veg comes from makes an incredible difference, as does knowing the people who grow it. "The very nature of what we do is that we're not doing it on our own." Beyond providing access to organic and seasonal food, what the CSA model allows for is a different relationship with the food we eat, one in which, as Marston puts it, "you're never going to waste that veg if you know the sweat and tears that went into it."
Gibside Community Farm is a volunteer-run member co-operative that was established in 2013, and that is committed to the values of the food sovereignty movement. However, the 14 acres of land on which organic produce is now grown ran a serious risk of becoming something completely different. In the mid-noughties, the land was set to become an opencast coal mine, but after years of local campaigning, the National Trust decided to buy the land and hand it over to a more sustainable project, in a dramatic example of the kind of impact that a development choice like this can have for the local communities involved. Today, Gibside relies on the work of 30 volunteers, who pay a small membership fee and work on the farm in exchange for a weekly bag of vegetables. Alongside providing local households with access to seasonal fruit and veg, Gibside sell wholesale produce to local businesses, and like many other CSAs, they run and host community projects on site.
A change of ethos
All these community projects have now been cancelled due to the lockdown. However, beyond these deliberate efforts to bring the community closer to the reality of small-scale food production, the CSA approach to the food system would appear to trigger a much broader set of reactions among people who buy into this model. Michael Marston's suggestion that "what CSA brings to people is more than vegetables" seems to be borne out by a lot of social scientific research that has come out in the last decade. For example, a wide-scale survey of "solidarity purchasing groups" in Lombardy presented at the United Nations Institute for Social Development found that among so-called ethical consumers, having a closer relationship with those who produce the food that they buy led to a whole range of other lifestyle shifts: not only did they consume more organic, local and seasonal produce (not much of a surprise), but there was a large number of people who reported that they were more interested in local issues, more able to cooperate with people in general and more confident in their capacity to influence public policy.
They were more interested in local issues, more able to cooperate with people in general and more confident in their capacity to influence public policy.
For anthropologist Cristina Grasseni, one of the lead researchers on the project, food can be thought of as a total social fact: it has an impact in every aspect of our personal and social lives. In Beyond Alternative Food Networks, she argues that once our relationship to food has changed, it starts to generate new ways of socialising, of organising the economy, and of fostering political participation. But these days, we are dealing first and foremost with another total social fact: the coronavirus and the state of social distancing that has entered into our lives and that will stay with us for many months to come. Like everyone else, CSAs have had to adapt to the new set of challenges.
CSA’s under coronavirus
Sharing some of her experiences from the UK network, Dykstra tells me: "CSAs now have to do the opposite of what CSA stands for – getting people physically involved. In general, now there is a lot of opposite adaptive thinking to try and stay connected despite everything." Contingency plans are readily available online with many of the measures that we're now becoming used to: social distancing, washing hands, and reducing contact as much as possible between members and growers. "As a community," Dykstra continues, "most CSAs were taking it very seriously even before the lockdown began", taking measures such as disinfecting the veg boxes that members receive or organising neighbourhood-based deliveries to minimise the cost for growers.
Perhaps the most challenging issue for CSAs, however, is that they have to reduce their teams of volunteers to make sure that people can keep social distancing and still be out on the fields, especially given the rise in demand. For Charlotte Barry, from Camel CSA in Cornwall, "the coronavirus has resulted in many more people wanting membership. We currently have more than 20 households on our waiting list. Early on in the pandemic we devised a contingency plan to deal with the challenges that might arise." Now that the lockdown is in full swing, work in the fields of the Camel CSA still carries on as before, albeit under very different conditions.
"A tight-knit group of us – growers, core management group and regular volunteers – are keeping Camel CSA up and running during the pandemic. We have teams that don't all overlap to prevent cross-infection although some overlapping is unavoidable. Social distancing is easy outdoors, not so simple in the polytunnels. But we're managing. We dance around each other a lot!"
It's easy to see why the CSA model is appealing to more and more people. The draw of seasonal, sustainable produce that comes from within the community fits very well in our emergent understanding of how life ought to be lived in the face of the current climate emergency. But for all the growing enthusiasm in the CSA model, it’s not without its challenges. In particular, this time of year is known among growers as 'the hungry gap', the time of year when stores of winter foods such as potatoes, onions and other root vegetables are dwindling, and the summer crops are still far off. As Dykstra tells me, "this time of year is difficult for most farmers anyway. Now, as the weather improves, everyone wants to start planting.” In the months ahead, she says, "some may face labour shortages from illness or self-isolation and it's unknown whether the current increase in demand will continue as people start to feel the financial pinch of the pandemic."
Now more than ever, small and medium-scale farmers such as those in the CSA network are playing a crucial role in maintaining the UK's food security. And yet, even while the UK remains precariously dependent on imports and just-in-time distribution networks, according to Dykstra there is very little legal support for local and small food producers. This is why the Landworkers' Alliance, a union representing more than 1000 small and medium-scale farmers and landworkers across the UK, is now calling for emergency measures to ensure the resilience of the UK's domestic food supply in the months ahead. Some of these measures include access to the £10,000 grant for small business relief, a fast-track system to help new entrants to start work as soon as possible, recruitment of local workers to help with planting and harvesting, and a community resilience programme to help local food businesses set up doorstep delivery systems and safety measures to ensure that essential food system infrastructure like farm shops and open air markets can remain open.
But beyond seeking help from the government, the Landworkers' Alliance and other organisations are also mobilising their extensive grassroots networks. Following the ethos of self-organisation that is so prevalent in small-scale agriculture, many in the network are now actively recruiting, looking for people to help during the planting season this spring. The keyword here, as ever in the world of CSAs, is resilience.
At the end of our hour-long conversation over the phone, I ask Michael Marston of Gibside Community Farm what the word means to him. He tells me that resilience is "the ability to see that your community – both physical and by association – can bring much greater benefits than we actually believe. It's easy for many people to run with the idea that we don't need neighbours. The cynicism in some people is the feeling that there's a default position that we will go back to. I'm not so sure about that.” As he reminds me, things have changed in the past. Until not long ago, in fact, we never used to shop in supermarkets. Now, possibly, and certainly not only by our own design, things might be changing again.