Earlier this summer, FreshDirect announced a new offering - a boxed “CSA” product. As one tweet announcement reads – “[Our] new #CSA boxes from Lancaster Farm Co-Op […] Feature [a] diverse selection of approx 8 #organic veg/week.” FreshDirect customers can now order a CSA box any day of the week and choose which weeks to participate or skip. There is no seasonal commitment. The model is “when you want it.” Boxes typically include 8-10 varieties of produce and prices range from $27.99 to $49.99 per box depending on the farm and inclusion of eggs and cheese. FreshDirect is currently showcasing Pennsylvania and New York state farms for New York City delivery.
I have used FreshDirect many times and lauded it for convenience when in a grocery bind. However, those of us who know that CSA translates to “Community Supported Agriculture” have to wonder if FreshDirect isn’t doing a bit of false advertising. Reviews are crediting FreshDirect with being a more convenient CSA – fresh produce when you want it – without the hassle making a commitment to an actual farmer and community organization on a seasonal basis. They certainly are capitalizing on a trendy acronym but how far off of the mark are they?
To understand whether or not FreshDirect’s offering is truly a CSA, let’s begin with the definition of a CSA. A CSA is a group of people who purchase shares from a given farm in advance of the growing season as a way of providing financial support for that farm. Every week, CSA members pick up their allotted vegetables (and sometimes fruit) at a predetermined location. The money invested by the community before the growing season begins supports the farm in a variety of ways - from purchasing new seeds to equipment repair.
Now, let’s hone in on the “community” component. The idea is that a group of like-minded people come together weekly to pick-up their farm shares. You chat, you exchange recipes, and you complain about the weird surprise veggie you have to take home – but you do it together. You don’t have the option of saying “yes” one week and “no” the next despite your travel or work schedule. You know every week there is some surplus and the CSA is putting that surplus to good use by donating to local shelters, youth groups, and community centers. The volunteer efforts of the community to run the CSA keep the seasonal costs down. You earn the right to your “group membership” by donating 8 hours over the course of 6 months to a host of volunteer activities. You may help on the farm, write newsletter recipes, or set-up or clean-up the weekly pick-up spot. Each volunteering opportunity is a chance to bond with other CSA members, further enhancing the community component.
FreshDirect has done a wonderful job supporting local farmers. This was true even before their CSA announcement. However, FreshDirect is misleading customers by indicating that the purchase of a box of local produce entitles them to be called a CSA member. There are essential elements of a CSA missing from the FreshDirect’s boxes of produce, making their “CSA box” a total misnomer.
A person who purchases a CSA box from FreshDirect is not a CSA member despite supporting local agriculture. The components of community building and season-long financial support of a farmer are missing in the FreshDirect model. FreshDirect should certainly continue to support local agriculture, but it should strongly consider rebranding this product so as not to confuse consumers. If FreshDirect does not rebrand, customers may shy away from joining actual CSAs in favor of the FreshDirect product. This shift could have the opposite effect customers might anticipate, providing less financial support to farmers on a seasonal basis and more unpredictability in crop yield from week-to-week.