ASTORIA, NY - Every week, two worlds meet in the Church of the Redeemer when the members of Harvest Astoria pick up their vegetable share in this Queens church where the congregation is comprised predominantly of low-income Latinos.
Community-supported agriculture groups like Harvest Astoria allow local residents to pay upfront for a share in a local farmer's crop before the harvest season, assuring the farmer of revenue. From roughly June to November, members pick up their weekly portion of organic, locally grown produce at a neighborhood location.
But with share prices between $400 and $600, membership remains out of reach for many Astorians. One out five adult residents in this community district are below the poverty line, according to the city's 2000 Census. That is why, like most food groups in New York City, Harvest Astoria offers low-income residents subsidized shares at half price; the other half is funded by an administrative fee levied on full members.
The economic crisis, however, has redefined traditional low-income membership. Subsidized shares now predominantly go to unemployed or underemployed recent college graduates, in part because most minority, low-educated families have opted out, even with subsidized pricing, local coordinators say.
Making community-supported agriculture affordable to New Yorkers of all income levels has been a fundamental mission for Just Food, a not-for-profit organization that gives practical support to groups like Harvest Astoria. “If someone wants to join a CSA, we want them to be able to – even if their income is lower,” said Paula Lukats, the CSA program manager for Just Food. Lukats estimated that the number of low-income memberships went up to 4,100 last year, up from 3,400 in 2009.
Each Thursday, the Harvest Astoria members fill their bags with the celery, carrots, squash, fennel or other vegetables on the weekly menu. Ten feet away, Spanish-speaking congregants languidly chat, now and then glancing over at the steadily diminishing mounds of greens.
Mary Fields, Director of Harvest Astoria, admitted that these women are in fact its target audience for low-income shares, and she acknowledges that the group is failing to reach them. Instead, the majority of the 10 low-income shares at Harvest Astoria go to college-educated young women who are unemployed or underemployed, she said. In the past, low-income membership more often included Hispanic families and churchgoers, Fields added. “I feel like I should say that we want to service more people who really need the shares because that's the right thing to say,” the director said, while adding that the changed demographic did not disturb her. “For me, this is more about supporting local agriculture.”
Christy Baker-Smith, the low-income share coordinator for Astoria CSA – another community-supported agriculture group – said the current crisis has changed the applicant pool of its low-income members. Subsidized and full members have become more alike. “This year there were many 'educated', non-minority families who still needed assistance,” Baker-Smith wrote in an email.
“They generally had been full members in the past, but had lost work or income and otherwise wouldn't be able to afford the share. We suspect this will begin to change again as people find work.”
For now, Baker-Smith admitted, most subsidized share members at Astoria CSA are people like Andrew Stern and Keldan Calder. He is a 24-year-old broker at a real-estate firm with a bachelor's degree in business administration; she is a 23-year-old waitress at a local restaurant-bar with a degree in political sciences.
Stern said he qualified for the subsidized share because of his annual income – which he refused to reveal for this article. He loves his subsidized share. “It's just healthy veggies at a bargain price,” he said.
Hellgate CSA, another Astoria-based community-supported agriculture group, does not subsidize any members, though it did subsidize one last year. Meg Cotner, the group’s membership coordinator, hopes to attract and support more low-income residents next year, be they traditional low-income families or recent unemployed graduates. “We don't make preferences on age, gender or ethnicity,” she said. “In this economy, recent college grads don't have a monopoly on being poor.”
Back at the Redeemer Church in Astoria, the Harvest CSA volunteers are wrapping up. After a latecomer has finished collecting her vegetables, Fields walks over to the middle of the room, to the invisible line that separates the CSA members from the church members. She raises her arms and waves them high in the air to get the churchgoers' attention. “OK,” she shouts. The women rise from their chairs, rushing over to the tables. They compete for the best leftover vegetables and push them into plastic bags to take home. The women know they can get the leftover vegetables for free, Fields explained. “Also, some of them can't even really afford $150,” she said.
Marta Rivera is one of those people. Working in a clothing store, she makes $790 nets a month. Her rent is $700. Rivera does not live close to the church and cannot always make it to the weekly distribution. When that happens, she goes without vegetables for weeks. “My doctor says: 'Eat more vegetables.' But it's too expensive.”
If there are still leftovers at the end of the Harvest Astoria distribution, one of the churchgoers often takes them to a local senior’s center. Similarly, Hellgate Astoria donates its weekly leftovers to a shelter for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in Astoria, and the extras from Astoria CSA go to the Steinway Food Pantry.
Linda Thompson is a journalism student at Columbia's School of Journalism.
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