Supporting your community with Community Supported Agriculture: Expanding the CSA concept

The Story of One Family’s Ongoing Food Cupboard Experiment
by Holly, Dennis and Julia Violette, February, 2011.

Comments from the food cupboard at the the bottom.


The basic concept is for a willing donor to adopt a food cupboard for all or part of the local growing season with the goal of using one or more Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares to provide locally grown produce to the food cupboard’s clients. This requires that the donor, the food cupboard, and the producing farmer(s) work together to develop a system of ordering, delivery, and distribution that is workable for all. Although the idea of the donor purchasing CSA shares for this purpose is not a requirement, often using a CSA plan generates better value-per-dollar-invested than simply purchasing produce off the farmer’s stand.

Our family of three became interested in local food pantries through the Penobscot County Master Gardener’s Program. We have, along with others, volunteered many hours at the University of Maine’s Rogers Farm to provide fresh vegetables through the Maine Harvest for Hunger program. However, we soon realized that the need was greater and our small family asked ourselves, “What more can we do to help?”

As regular patrons of the Orono Farmers’ Market, we decided to purchase 5 CSA shares in the fall of 2010 from Tom Roberts and Lois Labbe of Snakeroot Organic Farm for the Brewer Christian Food Cupboard . Both Jim Roche (the food cupboard manager) and Tom Roberts were enthusiastic and interested with this new concept of providing vegetables to food cupboard clients. Our family picked up vegetables at the Tuesday afternoon market and delivered them for Wednesday distribution at the food cupboard.

In recent years, food cupboards have received fresh produce as an addition to other cupboard offerings. Some have limited refrigeration and space in their buildings. Care must be taken to make sure that the type of product and volume matches their needs. On occasion, we refrigerated items until the food cupboard handoff. The food cupboard may find that the clients need more assistance with methods of cooking these foods (ex. Squash, broccoli, spinach). Although foreign to us who patronize farmers markets, there are many people that simply do not know how to cook or prepare food that does not come from a can or a box. In the case of the Brewer Food cupboard, the director was able to add another volunteer to assist the clients with the fresh vegetables and also to keep the lines moving. Continuing dialogue with the cupboard director or volunteer is necessary to make sure that questions are answered regarding the produce. Thus, the initial selection of products may need to be revised due to clients and their needs.

As an added interest of ours, but not a requirement of the food cupboard or a CSA, we featured a weekly vegetable with a recipe and all the ingredients except salt, pepper, and oil. The food cupboard packaged these as “to go” meals. We wanted to make sure that the recipients had a tasty and easy recipe for their fresh veggies.

However, no trial is without a learning curve, including some humor and surprises. Kale was not chosen first but leeks and celeriac were. Also, never feature a pumpkin or squash recipe the week after Halloween as the recipients thought we were trying to give them old leftover jack o lanterns. (And we all know that those are not the tastiest!) Our family also tested the recipes we handed out, so if we were not satisfied with our recipe then we had a night or two of a food cupboard menu ourselves!

The initial effort to provide more fresh local produce to the food cupboard was so successful that we are increasing our purchase of CSA shares in 2011 to be able to cover all three seasons.

The following outlines the process that was successful for us but by no means implies that other models would not be equally successful.

  • Locate a willing source for the CSA share(s). This is an excellent way to support your local farmer as well as a community food cupboard. Contact the farmer and purchase your CSA share(s). A county-by-county list of CSA farms can be found at MOFGA’s CSA Directory.
  • Contact the food cupboard and explain that you wish to donate a CSA share. (You may need to explain the CSA concept to them, since it is not familiar to everyone.)
  • Determine what the cupboard needs and what it has for storage capability.
  • Arrange for delivery of products from the farmer to the food cupboard. This includes determining what time the farmer will have the produce available, who will be picking it up from the farmer, and when the food cupboard can accept delivery. Once this is done a few times, it becomes fairly routine.
  • It is a good idea to email the farmer a day or two before every pick up so that the produce can be harvested in a timely manner to be ready for pick up and to ensure that you do not deplete an item for the regular market customers.

There are some areas that may need a liaison or assistance in facilitation. As a donor, you may not know of a food cupboard or may not have the time to be directly involved. A county-by-county list of many Maine food pantries can be found at the Good Shepard Food Bank , or you may inquire at your County Cooperative Extension office or local church.

Another possibility is that the donor may prefer to give the money to the food cupboard with the stipulation that the money go to a particular farmer for a CSA share. However, this requires additional work for the food cupboard volunteers as it would mean that the food cupboard would contact the farmer to purchase the CSA share, request the product and arrange a pick up time.

If the donor directly makes the connection with the farmer for the CSA share, it is our hope with the experiences so far that the farmer would ask others for assistance in making the process work. CSA shares need to be flexible.

Depending upon the size of the cupboard, a donor could donate all or part of a CSA share to use for a week, a month or in multiple shares for a season. Each farmer, donor and food cupboard is unique. A little flexibility by all parties will make the learning curve a success.

Our family is hopeful that our idea of buying CSA shares to assist food cupboards will encourage others to do the same. Done properly, this can be considered a charitable contribution by the donor for tax purposes, so get a receipt from the farmer and the food cupboard for your share(s)! The benefits to the food cupboard and its clients are obvious. However, not to be lost in this concept is that the small local farmer gains another market for his/her produce. We see it as a win-win proposition!

Questions and comments can be emailed to the Violette’s at [email protected].

From the Brewer Christian Food Cupboard

This comment on last fall’s CSA donation by the Violette’s:

As far as the food cupboard goes, CSA is great. I cannot think of anything negative to say. We do receive produce from several sources. We can get produce from Good Shepherd Food-Bank for free when they have some. The Maine Harvest for Hunger program (a project at the UMO’s Rogers Farm in Orono) was our biggest donor this past year, next was the Violette’s CSA, and then we had several local gardeners bring in items. The freshness of the local veggies was outstanding.

I think that just putting the vegetables on the table without giving some information to the client does not work. Most young clients will pass up veggies if they have to cook them. The older clients usually are single or two person households. The recipes that we received (also from the Violette’s) were well received by both groups because they were designed for small families and we included all the herbs and spices (usually keeping the number of ingredients to 4 or less and the cooking time to 30 minutes or less).

This past growing season we received approximately 4,500 pounds of fresh produce from all sources. The only impact on the food cupboard was needing to have a volunteer to explain to the client what some of the items were (like the Delicata squash) and how they could be used. The clients loved the whole process; my volunteers thought it was terrific and liked trying the recipes so they could tell the clients how good it was.

This coming season I plan to put on another volunteer each day we are open just to do the produce and the recipes—I hope to limit the number of volunteers I use so that they can be trained ahead of time. Most of the produce was delivered to the food cupboard but I also went out and picked up some donations. It is not a problem for us to pick up anything that is offered. I am a part-time employee of the food cupboard and have the time and vehicle to pickup donations; some cupboards may not. I have rambled on here but I hope I explained what it has been like from the food cupboard’s point of view. I appreciate what you are doing and I would like to visit your operation this spring.

— Jim Roche [email protected] Manager, Brewer Christian Food Cupboard

About Tom Roberts

When I started attending the Brewer Farmers’ Market back in August of 1983, my sole concern was being able to sell the produce my farm was growing at a good price. After attending market for a year or two, I began to realize that how the market was organized had a great impact on my sales. And how the market was organized also influenced how it made decisions about dues, new members, what could be sold at market, and how it promoted itself—and this, too, had an impact on my sales. So I got involved in the market’s steering committee and began to understand how various market members thought the market should operate. Some wanted a market czar, some wanted everyone to be allowed to do their own thing. But everyone seemed to agree that if the market as a whole did well, then so did they.