Keeping CSA Members Engaged Throughout the Season


Presenters: Diane Kolack, Sunnyside CSA; Josh Ankenberg, NYC Coalition Against Hunger; Melissa Danielle, Bed-Stuy CSA

Q:  How do you get people to accept the limits of the share, for example times of year with few products or a lot of one vegetable some weeks?

A:  Regular communication is very important:  let people know what is coming next, how weather is affecting the crops, real-life stories of what is happening on the farm, etc.  News letters can be helpful, as can finding ways of enabling two-way communication to respond to member concerns.

Q:  People will not always read the newsletter.

A:  You should be open to communication, though not everyone will be open to all the information provided.

Q:  How are sliding scale shares funded?

A:  One way is with grants.  The Citizens’ Committee for New York City’s revolving loan fund, for example.  Some farmers will also be willing to work out a few lower-priced or non-profit shares.

Q:  You mentioned that flyers are not always useful.  Do you have any other suggestions for what does/doesn’t work for outreach?

A:  Enabling people to talk to people who have been members of CSAs can be helpful.  People will talk about the benefits of the system and give prospective members a sense of what to expect.  Big brother/ big sister-style programs may be useful for introducing people to CSAs.

Q:  As an outsider to a community, how do you identify the influential people?

A:  Other organizations working in the area will know.  For example, CAMBA helped set up a CSA in Flatbush by reaching out to people they were already working with.  Religious leaders, social service organizations, schools, and the local business community are all contacts to consider.
Churches, schools, coffee shops, community health centers, social security administration offices, libraries, block parties, block/tenant associations… anywhere that you can leave fliers it is probably a good idea to do so.  Community events can also be a good opportunity to meet people.

Q:  Do you have a sense of the percent of members who return to a CSA after their first year?  Why do or don’t people return?

A:  First and foremost, people will return if they like the vegetables.  Another factor is consistency—if the CSA is the same day and time as the previous year, for example.  These time conflicts can be particularly problematic in low-income communities.  People are also more likely to return if they pick up their produce.  Good communication and reminders can help people get a routine set up so that they remember their pickups.  Calling or emailing people who don’t pick up their shares the first few weeks can be a worthwhile use of volunteers.
Putting information about caring for or preparing food so it doesn’t spoil or go unused into the newsletters can make people happier with the CSA format.  Just Food’s “Veggie Tipsheetl” is a great resource.

Q:  How do CSAs deal with food stamps?

A:  Usually through a food stamp identification number.  There is a minimum dollar amount that must be sold in food stamps to get a food stamp card swiper, so many CSAs will use the triplicate paper form (through Chase bank).  These forms must be processed within 7 days.  “Processing” entailed calling Chase to report the forms.  Grants covered the discounts for shares purchased with food stamps.  Just Food has workshops on accepting/processing food stamps; see their website for more information on the food stamps process.

Q:  What days were the pickups at the CSAs?  Did weekdays work?  What times?

A:  Josh’s CSAs were Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and weekdays did not seem to be a problem.  He recommends longer pickup times after work hours (5-8 worked well).  For early evening pickups, the farmers can drop off their produce around 1.

Q:  How does one develop a sense of community among CSA members—make everyone feel involved, feel like a part, develop and sustain relationships?

A:  A sense of community is very important for keeping members engaged.  Potlucks can introduce some members, but not everyone will show up to separate events.  Longer CSA pickup hours can allow members to hang around and socialize with each other.  Well-announced open core-group meetings (every two weeks or so) can help more active participants stay involved.
       Branding is also an important component—Melissa recommended considering the term “farm-share” instead of CSA.  Required volunteer hours (e.g. 4 hours) make people feel like they have a stake in the CSA. 
       Other ideas:  websites people can post recipes on, newsletters that members can submit to, member profiles in newsletters, and workdays on the farm.  Continuing outreach into the season can include presence at block parties, health fares, cooking demos, community dinners, any sort of event to host a table.
      If the farmers are at pickup or also sell at a farmer’s market, then people who cannot make it to work days will still have to chance to meet their farmer.  Venders with samples, such as cheese, can come to pick up, which can help people socialize.

Q:  Payment is often “behind the scenes,” so that no member is uncomfortable with upper-income shares subsidizing lower-income shares.  How can you keep this “behind the scenes” with food stamps?

A:  People can pull the worker aside or make arrangements with core members one-on-one to take care of the paper work.

Q:  You mentioned member profiles in your newsletters.  Please elaborate.

A:  This was a job assigned to volunteers.  The questions included favorite recipes, favorite veggies, how long they’ve lived in the neighborhood, interests other than food, etc.  The questions were largely to tie the CSA to the neighborhood.  It was posted in the newsletters—see

Q:  How does one work on developing community when people are tired from other obligations, or reach out to people who are short on time?

A:  The 4 hour volunteer requirement mentioned earlier is spread out over 20 weeks, so most people can do it.  The BedStuy CSA does allow people who need it to buy out of the work requirement.  Mandatory orientations at the beginning of the season are very important for reaching all the members and making sure things run smoothly.

Q:  Is it helpful to have pickups where people walking by can see you?

    A:  Yes.

Q:  What is a fiscal sponsor?

A:  Non-profit status—501 C-3 status—can take time and paperwork to get.  Before an organization has its official status, it can go through an existing non-profit to apply for a grant or receive funds.  Sometimes the other organization will take a percentage of the funds, but not always.  If your organization has a relationship with an existing non-profit, this can be a very good way to get start-up funds.

Q:  How do you recommend distributing newsletters?

A:  Handing them out on pickup days and posting them online can reach a good number of people.  Facebook and Flickr can be good for sharing photos and up-to-date farm news.  Not everyone has email, so it’s usually a good idea to have paper copies and ask volunteers to make phone calls.

Q:  How do you bring up the topic of sliding scales for payment options, in which people of different economic status pay different rates?

A:  For the BedStuy CSA, it was listed in the brochures.  Your income correlates to what you are expected to pay.  They didn’t have any income verification process, but didn’t seem to have problems with people being dishonest about it.  When developing a sliding scale, one also may wish to consider questions of household size, student loans, etc in order to get a more complete picture of the household ability to pay.
Half-shares are also an option for bringing down the costs of joining a CSA.  It’s usually easier to have smaller shares than full shares every other week, so that people remember when they are supposed to pick up.  Helping members network to purchase shares together is another idea.  On a related note, having an exchange box so that people can get rid of vegetables they don’t like can make CSAs a more viable option for some people.

Q:  Has allowing people to “buy out” of their volunteer requirements caused problems with not having enough volunteers?

A:  Not really.  If you find it does with your CSA, you can always just raise the price of buying out.  For example, the BedStuy buy out was $50 to get out of 4 hours of volunteer work.  The extra money is quite helpful for things like fliers and other operating costs.  It is very important to make sure that all of the CSA members are okay with this as an option before initiating it, however, as some core groups have very strong feelings about working together.

Q:  How many members and farmers were in your CSA?

A:  The BedStuy farm share had one vegetable farmer, one fruit farmer, and one egg farmer.  The options were full-share or half-share.  They had about 100 members, but were looking to expand.  They have also been considering including meat or fish if there is interest.

Q:  What are your thoughts on letting people buy a “market box” on a weekly basis, rather than signing up for a season-long share?

A:  This is something that should be discussed with the farmer beforehand, to see if they want to bring a little extra to sell.  It ought to cost at least as much as a week’s worth of share vegetables, to provide an incentive to buy the share.  One of the points of buying in for a full season is to share the risk of a bad season with the farmer, so you really don’t want to encourage people to start treating the CSA pickup as a grocery store.

Q:  To sum up, what would you say is the most important thing in keeping CSA members engaged?

A:  Josh:  it has to be about the food.  Let people know and learn about the food, and help them share tips with each other.
       Melissa:  don’t stress out too much about every little detail.


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