Sustainable Diet, Sustainable World: Community Supported Agriculture Helps Make Both Happen
Author: Savanna Smith
When you buy your groceries, the best and brightest fruits and veggies have usually traveled across the country and sometimes across the world to get to you. This supply chain bypasses the perfectly fresh produce local to your community. Our traditional market practices have enormously high transportation and carbon costs, create massive amounts of wasted food, and may leave our local farmers with unsustainable businesses.
So what can we do to address these problems?
Community Supported Agriculture is a Viable Path
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a new model for food markets. Any group of individuals can pledge to support local farm operations so that the growers and consumers provide mutual support. Farmers benefit from predictable cashflow, better crop prices, and direct marketing plans. In return, consumers receive regular distributions of produce throughout the growing season. Not only do participants have direct access to healthier and more sustainable diets for themselves, they have the privilege of sustaining the health of their community’s agricultural ecosystem.
CSAs at Work are Convenient: McLean’s Potomac Vegetable Farms Partnership
In 2010, MITRE’s McLean campus introduced a CSA program in partnership with Potomac Vegetable Farms. PVF graciously added MITRE McLean to their weekly harvest and delivery list, allowing MITRE employees a convenient way to pick up their CSA shares while on campus. Members can choose from a variety of different share sizes and frequencies, which can be tailored to different individuals and lifestyles.
Registering to be a CSA member had several benefits. Members shared recipes, helped identify vegetables from their boxes, and received weekly newsletters from the farm. In addition, the cafeteria purchased produce from the farm for all employees to enjoy fresh produce in the salad bar and hot entrees.
“The program was successful for over 12 seasons, with over 20 seasonal members to start. [Following the pandemic], registration for spring 2020 was not enough for the farms to offer direct delivery,” explains Susan Krynicki, McLean’s Corporate Chefs Food Service Director. “As we move forward into our new norm, we hope to have Potomac Vegetable Farms back again.”
Exploring New Vegetables: Tuft’s New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
Bedford Campus offers a similar program, through the Tuft’s New Entry Sustainable Farming Project. You pay for 10 or 20 weeks through Tuft’s and receive weekly boxes of fresh produce for pickup at Flatbread Company, directly across from Bedford Campus.
MITRE software engineer Sophia Yan has supported the CSA for 3 years. She recalls thinking how different it was from her normal grocery shopping and cooking routine. She said she had to learn to improvise recipes and get used to supplementing with what she had. There were times she didn’t know what a certain vegetable was: “There were a lot of Asian vegetables, even ones you wouldn’t find in Asian grocery stores. I would call my mom and ask what veggies were what. I got to make a lot of dishes from my childhood.”
The New Entry Project is a CSA program that sources vegetables from multiple smaller farms in the area, rather than from one big farm. With more farms comes more variety. “I didn’t realize how many different varieties of vegetables could grow in a small part of Massachusetts. I grew up going to farmer’s markets in California,” Sophia recounts. “So this allowed me to learn about the seasonal differences and experiment with different types of vegetables.”
Community Supported Agriculture Globally
Looking beyond our MITRE community, we can see the effects of industrialized global agriculture. According to the World Economic Forum, the agri-food sector has contributed to increased emissions, natural-resource degradation, and biodiversity loss. The typically long and complex supply chains are part of what make the system unsustainable.
Alternatively, shorter supply chains and plant-centered diets reduce the strain on environmental resources. Around the world, consumers, policy makers, and businesses are driving local food movements. Large increases in urban farming to meet local food demand are one manifestation. New policies enable food sourcing to be more transparent. Consumers are adopting more plant-based diets.
From a global health perspective, the percentage of the global population that is obese has grown exponentially, according to the executive summary on Food System and Diets. One reason for this is that many if not most communities have easy access to a large number of mostly non-nutritious foods (e.g., sweetened beverages, processed meats, starches, sugary foods). The problem is especially pernicious in under-invested communities without access to fresh produce.
In contrast, local diets support more diverse and healthy diets. The World Economic Forum explains, “Progressive policies have successfully reduced the price point for healthier diets relative to unhealthy diets. Together, these factors enable a shift towards more balanced diets and a reduction in obesity and related diseases.”
Sustainable diets are important at more than just the individual level. If our food systems rely too heavily on a few crops, for example, unexpected events—flooding, heat waves, disease outbreaks — can threaten the food supply for communities around the world. Instead of focusing on a limited number of staple crops (e.g., corn, wheat, rice), we can augment our food supply with diverse crops (e.g., legumes, whole grains, nuts, vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables). We can also invest in farmers and innovators to incentivize the sustainable production of healthy food (like this farming project in Central Florida). Improving on-farm and local food diversity will increase the resilience of our food system to future and inevitable shocks as well as decrease the overall energy costs of traditional agriculture.
In the interim, we can support our local farms. Now is a perfect time to sign up for a CSA to get fresh and local vegetables to add to your cooking and dietary repertoire. When you open your CSA box, you will be met with a lively variety of vegetables which signals a bright future. Given our innovative culture at MITRE, it’s no surprise that many MITRE employees are devoted to the CSA model. To learn more about signing up for a CSA in your part of the country, see:
- Across the country: Directory of CSAs by State
- McLean: Potomac Vegetable Farms
- Bedford: Tuft’s New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
Savanna Smith is a software engineer in the Software Engineering Innovation Center. She has partnered with federal sponsors to provide software development and machine learning expertise to achieve mission outcomes and promote social good. Interdisciplinary at heart, she holds a BS in Computer Science and a minor in Cognitive Science from the University of Connecticut. She loves volunteering at local farms and hiking with her chocolate lab.
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