As people avoid going into grocery stores during the coronavirus pandemic, many in New Jersey are turning to CSAs as an alternate source for fresh food.

CSAs, or community supported agriculture programs, connect local farmers with consumers. They typically provide locally grown fruits, vegetables and herbs. Some also offer other kinds of locally produced foods, such as eggs, cheese, meat, pasta, jams and condiments. In turn, growers receive financial support directly from the community.

Some CSAs run weekly distribution sites staffed by volunteers, where members pick up shares purchased before the growing season starts. Others are small businesses that offer home delivery, some throughout the year and with multiple farms.

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Owner/farmer John Krueger of Circle Brook Farm, who sells organic produce through both CSAs and farmers markets, said he expects his CSA memberships to grow this year as customers want to ensure a steady supply of fresh vegetables.

It’s just one of the ways the pandemic has affected his business.

“It seems to have really renewed people’s interest in local food because people are concerned about the food chain and the supply chain,” Krueger said. “There’s a lot of worry there.”

The coronavirus started to spread right at the beginning of the agricultural season. Krueger said he considered reducing plantings and the number of workers he hired because of uncertainty in the market, but ultimately decided against it.

“Local food is going to be even more important,” Krueger said. “What happens if the food supply chain starts breaking down along with the economic crisis that’s coming?”

Krueger said he hires the same 11 seasonal workers from Guatemala each year under a federal work program. His employees usually travel to New Jersey a few weeks apart as the growing season ramps up. In April, borders started to close and flights were canceled to contain the virus, but he was able to bring all 11 at once on a last-minute flight. With staffing in place, spring planting is on track.

“We have to grow as much as we possibly can,” Krueger said. “If we grow more than we can sell, then we’re just going to donate it, but we have a responsibility to grow food. What farmers need to do is be part of the solution.”

From Farm to Fridge

Farm and Fork Society’s Melissa Goldberg, site manager for the CSA in Millburn and Maplewood that distributes food from several sustainable farms including Circle Brook, said their membership is growing. She still has room and a few more weeks until opening, but five more families just signed up, she said. They had scrapped their summer travel plans and wanted a reliable source for fresh food.

One concern among Farm and Fork members is sanitation.

“People want to know that that their produce is coming directly from the farm,” Goldberg said. “You go to the supermarket and you get a head of lettuce and how many people have touched it and put it back down? You don't know.”

Sarah Forrest helps run the Montclair Community Food Co-op CSA as a volunteer, supporting the organization’s mission to provide seasonal produce to the community while investing in a local farm.

“I’ve been doing this for about 11 seasons, but this year is going to be different. It has to be different,” Forrest said.

Instead of a crew of eight working together to weigh and sort produce from bulk crates on the farm’s truck, Forrest said they plan to schedule staggered times for individual members to pick up a pre-packaged box portioned by the farmer.

“We acknowledged that the most important thing is to make it as little contact as possible,” Forrest said. “Usually our CSA is all about community and being together and being close all summer. You look forward to doing that first delivery and seeing people you haven’t seen since November.”

Farm and Fork is implementing a similar pickup process, Goldberg said. She will charge an additional fee to cover materials and labor, but is hoping to work out a safe way for members to return and reuse boxes.  

Flocktown Farms has outlined a protocol for sanitizing and reusing boxes on their website, along with other new ways to deliver their sold-out CSA shares. Only staff are allowed on farm grounds and they will wear gloves, masks and hairnets while they process crops. There’s also a plan in place for anyone who shows symptoms or has come in contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19.

Forrest said that while her membership level is about the same as last year, the season opens in three weeks and she’s receiving inquiries.

“I have gotten a lot more calls from people who I don’t think would have ever considered doing a CSA before.” Forrest said. “Now people are just wanting to avoid the grocery store and so were getting a whole new population of people interested in joining.”

Forrest said she’ll miss the socializing from previous years but, ultimately, she’s grateful that the volunteers figured out how to make the CSA work in these changing times.

“You could look at all the things that you’re losing from these changes, but I think there’s a lot to be thankful for,” Forrest said. “We’re still able to do it and do it in a safe way.”

To find a CSA near you, search by location on https://www.localharvest.org.

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