Evaluating the Impact of Subsidized Local Food Boxes in NS

For the past several months, I have been evaluating the Cost-share Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Local Food Box programs in Cumberland County and Cape Breton for the Our Food Project.  As a community gardener and someone who comes from a long generation of famers, it has been an incredible experience to witness directly how subsidized CSA programs impact rural communities and families.

Both Cumberland County and Cape Breton, NS, are among of the most food insecure areas in the province and in Canada, which is why alternative and innovative approaches are needed to substitute and/or compliment mainstream charitable food sources such as food banks.  The Cost-share CSA Local Food Box programs aim to improve access to affordable, healthy, local produce for low-income individuals and families, by sharing the cost of weekly food boxes with the community through fundraising and sponsorships.   Cost-share CSA programs not only serve to increase access to fresh local food, they also support local farmers by opening up new and underserved markets, and through income diversification.

The most popular and common CSA model is a weekly food box program that is paid upfront by the consumers directly to local farmers.  The Cost-share model however, waives this advance payment, to allow low-income subscribers to “pay-as-they-go”.  Moreover, the low-income subscriber pays only half of the normal weekly share for their food box, which in Cumberland and Cape Breton, ends up amounting to $10/week.  This makes local food boxes much more affordable to many individuals and families experiencing income insecurity.  However, $10/wk. is still out of the reach of some, so special fundraising efforts are undertaken in some communities, such as through grant writing, to be able to offer some fully subsidized local food boxes.  A pilot in River Hebert NS for example, saw 5 residents living in social housing, receive full subsidies.  This included mostly seniors and others living on severely limited incomes.  When surveyed, those individuals commented that they would not otherwise have been able to afford the food box.

In Cumberland County, the Cost-share CSA Local Food Box Program, which began in 2014, runs for approximately 20 weeks/season.  A large percentage (73%), of participants reported that they were cooking new meals due to participation in the local food box program.  Another 73% of participants reported that they felt closer to the community, meaning that the program was introducing and building stronger relationships between other participants and farmers.  Almost 100% of the local food box participants reported eating more vegetables each week and often shared excess produce with others.

In Cape Breton, the cost-share CSA model, which started in 2016, looks a little different than the program in Cumberland.   It is an 8-week program that encompasses an online-shopping catalogue (in partnership with the Pan-Cape Breton Food Hub). The website displayed available food products and is updated weekly by the farmers. This allowed consumers to directly choose which food items they wanted to order. Since the CSA program’s ordering system was accomplished online, an unexpected outcome was helping participants with their computer literacy.  This included teaching participants how to set up an email account and showing them how to order things online – an important skill that could help them in the future!  Additionally, the Cape Breton program ran cooking workshops concurrently with the CSA program, to increase participants’ food knowledge and skills.  An overwhelming majority (92%!), reported an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption, and another 83% reported an increase in their confidence in cooking.

csa veggies

My findings illustrate that subsidized local food box models, such as those operating in Cumberland County and in Cape Breton, are having a real impact in the communities in which they operate, especially when it comes to community building.  The strength of these programs is that they provide opportunities to foster connections between low-income households and local farms.  While the program itself may only seem like a drop in the bucket towards solving the food insecurity issue, it is proactive in its goal. Solving the food insecurity crisis is not uni-dimensional .  It requires the cooperation of a resilient community to prioritize the importance of healthy and local food while appreciating the hard work and contribution of the local farmers that feed us.  The Cost-share CSA model certainly embodies that.

Further, these subsidized models, which rely solely on locally produced food, also serve to challenge the status quo when it comes to food box programs.  Considering that conventional food boxes typically source the contents of the boxes almost entirely from non-local  sources, one could argue that they are actually “part of the problem and a band-aid approach to getting healthy fresh food to communities at risk” according to Su Morin, Community Food Coordinator – Cumberland.  “The conventionally popular food box programs rely almost solely on food that travels from far distances, that is of the lowest quality – laden with chemicals and often produced on the backs of poor workers”, she added.

Morin believes that food bank users and other community members who are experiencing financial barriers to accessing fresh produce ought to be able to find local sources that are affordable to them.  She hopes to expand the Cost-Share Local Food Box Program in Cumberland by not only increasing the number of low-income subscribers, but also by extending the length of the season that the food boxes are available , for example, through the winter.  Her vision also includes many more small-scale farms in Cumberland and in NS, that will one day produce almost all of the food we need here locally, in a socially just and sustainable manner.

The Cost-share model is bringing us one step closer to this vision, one food box at a time!  Cost-share local food box programs grow the relationship between low-income consumers and producers while ensuring that those facing financial barriers are not turned away.  It envisions a future that is empowered by collaboration and equality.

For more information about the Cost-Share CSA Local Food Box Program model, or to donate to this important initiative, please visit the Ecology Action Centre website at: https://ecologyaction.ca/costshareCSA

Guest blog written by: Tina Yeonju Oh.  Tin a was raised on Treaty 6 (Edmonton, Alberta) and is a student at Mount Allison University on unceded Mi’kmaq territory. She is also the Sackville Community Garden Coordinator, a beekeeper-in-training, and a Research Assistant with the Ecology Action Centre, funded by a SSHRC research project out of the Laurier Centre for Sustainable Food called Food: Locally Embedded, Globally Engaged (FLEdGE) (Atlantic Node):  Food: Locally Embedded, Globally Engaged (FLEdGE)

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