What is a Food Co-op and CSA?

Food co-ops and CSA allow you to purchase local food from local farmers so that you can put healthy, sustainable food on your family’s table.

By Maryruth Belsey-Priebe

Fact checked by Sander Tamm

Food Cooperatives and CSA
Food Co-ops and CSA / Sander Tamm / Ecolife

If you’ve always wanted to get local, farm-fresh food delivered to your home but have no space or desire to grow it yourself, then a food cooperatives or community supported agriculture (CSA) project may be the solution. Food co-ops and CSA allow you to purchase local food from local farmers so that you can put healthy, sustainable food on your family’s table.

What are food co-ops and CSA?

Though similar in many ways, a natural food coop and a CSA project are slightly different things:

  • Community Supported Agriculture: These arrangements involve a consumer (you) purchasing shares (also called memberships or subscriptions) from a farmer. In exchange, you receive a weekly box (container, bag, basket) of local food grown seasonally on the farm. You may also be asked to spend time working on the farm to help out. This way, the benefits of a bumper crop are shared equally among the members, as are the challenges of a lean year.
  • Food co-ops: These involve the cooperative efforts of a group of people or organizations all with the aim of producing food for all members. They are generally nonprofit organizations, but they may sell to the public, with all profits going to the members. Food buying clubs, a subset of food coops, are those groups that come together to buy in bulk from local farmers in order to achieve lower prices for locally produced foods.

Benefits of purchasing from a CSA or food cooperative

The benefits to choosing a CSA are very similar to those of shopping at the local farmers market:

  • Farmers benefit: By partnering with the people who purchase the food and from the resulting financial support, a community is born, allowing input from all sides to create a better system for all.
  • Consumers benefit: Those purchasing food co-op food receive ultra-fresh produce that’s healthier and more eco-friendly. Additionally, when the farmer grows interesting heritage foods, consumers are exposed to foods they may never have tried. Children of these families also benefit by learning where their food comes from.
  • Environment benefits: Purchasing foods produced locally reduces the food miles your food travels (giving you a smaller carbon footprint). You’ll also likely be supporting a small-scale, family farm that is much more sustainable and hopefully organic, which has many other benefits. Learn more about the benefits of being a locavore.

How to find a food co-op or CSA

As with farmers markets, there are now many online directories and listings that provide you with local CSA and natural food co-ops. These are the most trusted:

If these resources turn up nothing in your local area, do an online search for terms like “community supported agriculture” or “CSA” or “natural food co-op” plus your city/town name to see what you come up with. Vendors at the local farmers market may also have information about CSAs in the area.

What to ask your food co-op or CSA farmer before signing on

As with any business partnership, you’ll want to know what you’re signing up for before you plunk down your cash and sign on the dotted line. There are a few things you can ask your food co-op and CSA representative to ensure that you’re supporting a farm you can really believe in:

  • Are your crops organically grown? Look for those that are certified organic, though if they use IPM (integrated pest management) instead of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, that’s a good second best.
  • What soil amendments to you use? Seek out farmers that use methods like composting, composted manure, cover crops, mulching, crop rotation, and crop diversity.
  • What do you use to manage pests? Soil health is the name of the game using holistic soil and plant management and diverse habitats for beneficial insects. Some may use things like natural pest repellents (hot pepper wax, garlic juice) or organic pesticides.
  • Where is your farm located? This is especially important if you’ll be putting in some sweat equity (you don’t want to have to drive 1 hour each way twice a month!). Since fuel will be expended to deliver the food every week, look for one that is located less than 100 miles away.
  • What size is your farm and who owns it? Family farms and small to medium corporate farms are best. Large corporate farms and monoculture agribusinesses should be avoided.
  • What are your labor practices and policies? Question the working conditions of all of the employees of the farm.  Listen for buzz words like “livable wages” and “safe conditions and training” through OSHA.