Local Food How To: Part One - Generocity Philly

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Aug. 21, 2013 10:46 am

Local Food How To: Part One

In part one of our Local Food How To series, we will explore food options that involve pre-ordering food in bulk on a weekly, monthly or seasonal basis.

(Photo via Greensgrow Farms)

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two part series on local food options. This article includes information on community supported agriculture (CSA) and buying clubs. Part two will highlight farmers’ markets and cooperatives.


Though many parts of Philadelphia still lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables, overall the city is gaining more local food options. Some of these avenues of access require more culinary creativity but are well suited for the budget-minded. Others are geared towards organized meal-planners and those with flexible budgets. Generocity explored several local food outlets to help illustrate what the advantages and disadvantages of these options are.

Community Supported Agriculture

CSA programs are abundant in Philadelphia, although most run only through the spring and summer months. In this model, consumers generally pay ahead of time for a season’s worth of food and receive a box every week or two containing a surprise selection of fruits and vegetables. Some multi-farm CSA programs, such as Philadelphia’s Greensgrow Farms, include a protein choice – eggs, dairy or seitan – as well, or the option to add extra products.

From the farmer’s perspective, the CSA advantage is that “they sell [the crop] before they’ve harvested, sometimes even before they plant, so they can plan their season,” said Bob Pierson, Farm to City founder and director. “Also in selling ahead of time they get their money up front, which means they don’t have to borrow to get the season started,” he added.

Because there’s less speculation involved, the farmer is able to pass on the savings to the consumer. And for the consumer, said Pierson, “there’s a psychological advantage because when the box comes in, it feels like it’s free. You’re not always forking over money for food.” Although the upfront cost, sometimes several hundred dollars, can be restricting to certain consumers. 

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But larger CSA programs, like Greensgrow’s 850-household system, are able to leverage their buying power for discounts. Geoff Bucknum, Greensgrow’s Chief Vegetable Wrangler, said that “buying and selling large quantities really helps people, and predicting a couple weeks out really helps. If you get stuck one week and you have a large quantity of things you don’t know how to move, call me and maybe we can fold it into the CSA. It’s a lot of forecasting and a lot of communication and trying to figure out how to help each other out.”

Of course, that box of perhaps-unfamiliar produce may feel intimidating to some less seasoned cooks. What to do with turnip greens or kohlrabhi? Bucknum said that some people choose a CSA for exactly that reason: “Sometimes someone will say, ‘I want to learn to cook,’ and having that box every week becomes a little project for them.”

On the other hand, someone with a family of four might value the one-stop-shopping aspect of the program. “CSA is a great way to say, hey this is structured, I’m going to show up and I know I’m going to get a great mix of fresh, local fruits and vegetables,” Bucknum said.

Both Pierson and Bucknum insisted that producer and consumer save on time and travel with CSA deliveries. If the consumer is picking up directly from the farm, they’ll receive a bit of a price break. “If they’re delivering it,” Pierson said, “[the farmer] will cut down on expenses – fewer locations with more people at each site.” With most programs offering pickup sites across Philadelphia (Greensgrow has recently added pickups in Camden, West Philadelphia, the Naval Yard, Center City and Philadelphia Hospital), it’s never been more convenient to sign up for a CSA.

Buying Clubs

For those who can’t bear to prepay for the CSA season or prefer to choose their products, buying clubs offer many of the same produce options with more flexibility. With Farm to City’s Winter Harvest program, for example, members order and pay a week in advance for the two-week period to follow. Available goods include everything from exotic local greens and herbs to frozen soups, meats, dairy, coffee and soap.

“In a buying club model,” Pierson said, “you can skip a week, you can drop out anytime, it’s not as fixed.” But unpredictable weather can slow or wipe out a crop altogether. It’s not unusual in a buying club for limited items from small farms to sell out in minutes, or for out-of-stock items to be missing from a delivery. However, Pierson said, the program is good for the farmers because they “don’t have to do any advertising or try to get people to buy it. We turn over to them a little over 70 cents of the consumer dollar. It’s even higher for the CSA – over 95% goes back to the farmer, but the farmer has to grow it and pack it and sometimes deliver it.”

There are newer, more alternative buying club models forming that seek to offer even lower prices. The three-year-old Food For All Collective offers bulk buying with monthly delivery under a mission they call “Universally Healthy,” or equally healthy for the consumer, farmer, laborers, and planet. The organization is entirely volunteer-run, which allows the product markup to remain around 10% (as opposed to the industry standard of 40-50%).

With TFFAC, there are stable products offered every month, like certified organic Fair Trade coffee and locally made bread. The produce offerings vary with what’s seasonally available from their New Jersey-based distributor, Zone 7. Sometimes, TFFAC will also work directly with smaller farms to offer additional choices.

Anna Deych, who volunteers on the TFFAC financial and ordering committees, said, “We select who we work with, and that is a collective decision. We looked at many options in the area and talked to people to find out how they aligned with our principles. We narrowed down the list, went with practical solutions, who can offer free delivery on time, who we would have a better working relationship with.” Trial and error brought TFFAC to its current suppliers.

Because TFFAC’s primary concern is its social responsibility component, its members seek to support smaller suppliers. “We used Metropolitan Bakery for years,” Deych said, “and we absolutely loved them, and there was a new bakery in town, a young guy, and we decided to incubate him and support him. We were his first customer.” Philly Bread is now TFFAC’s sole bread purveyor and has grown enough to have its own distribution center.

TFFAC does not require membership commitment or volunteer hours, though volunteers do receive a discount (similar to a co-op model). What sets it apart, Deych explained, is that “we are much smaller and we prefer to stay that way.” Its current model cannot support more than 100 families, so if TFFAC continues to grow, she added, it has the option to replicate in other communities. “We offer a model that may not necessarily work for all, but there’s a social component there, and you really know your sources. You have a lower markup on the product, so if you’re price-conscious that tends to resonate with us.”

At the end of the day, she said, “we are happy to see in Philadelphia that the choices are many. We see a system that became very self-sufficient and diverse, and that’s very beneficial to the consumer.”

Read Local Food How To: Part Two here.

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