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Farmers put churches on the map

Article from Episcopal News Service

By Lynette Wilson

Drew and Joan Norman started growing vegetables on their farm in White Hall, Maryland, in 1985 and eventually One Straw Farm became the state's largest organic vegetable farm, selling wholesale to up-market grocers including Whole Foods and Dean & Deluca.

"But it wasn't really profitable," Joan Norman said, in a telephone interview.

Then 10 years ago the Normans got involved in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which eventually led to collaborations with more 40 drop/pick-up location partners, including ten churches and a synagogue. One Straw Farm and Episcopal Church of the Messiah in northeast Baltimore are partnering for the fifth year.

"It's like a triangle; the smallest structure that can support itself," Norman said. "I need the church as much as I need people to buy shares, and the church needs me to get people across the threshold."

It works like this: participants buy shares, providing the farmer with money up front -- money that farmers traditionally borrowed from banks -- in the spring. Then, beginning in late May, shareholders pick up eight items a week for 24 weeks, including fruits and vegetables, from drop/pick-up locations. A share in One Straw Farm costs $540 annually; the farm has about 2,000 shareholders, Norman said.

For every ten shares purchased by CSA members using a faith-based drop, Norman -- herself an Episcopalian and member of St. James in Monkton -- tithes one share, leaving it up to the church to decide how to use it – to donate to a food pantry, a family, a senior center, a soup kitchen.

Messiah holds the pick-up site on Monday evenings under a maple tree.

"We'd lost some members and were looking at new ways to do outreach … and in our conversations, food kept coming up," said Sarah Miranda, coordinator for Messiah's pick-up site, adding that there used to be a farmers’ market serving the area but that it closed in 2000. "The CSA has deepened our relationships in the community. People slow down to get to know each other, drink ice water and chat. It's a wonderful little meeting place for a few hours every week."

Alta Haywood, a Unitarian Universalist, drives 25 minutes one way every week to Messiah to pick up the share that she and her husband divide with another couple (it's not uncommon for people to split shares).

"It's good to encounter folks of other religions and see that we all share the same values," said Haywood in a telephone interview, when asked how being a member of a CSA has helped her connect with the community.

For churches, it's easy. "You don't even need to change the acronym, 'Congregational Supported Agriculture,'" said Michael Schut, associate program officer for economic and environmental affairs in the Episcopal Church’s Advocacy Center, adding that CSA participation "connotes a certain worldview," 

Danny Mydlack's affiliation with One Straw Farm led him to Messiah and to co-found Arts and Ideas Sudbury School, an alternative school that rents space from the church.

"We found the church because of the CSA. We had been members of the One Straw Farm CSA, affiliated with a different pick-up spot. When we found that there was another pick-up spot closer to us, it put a spotlight on the church," Mydlack said. "We [Mydlack and his wife] thought that if they are affiliated with a CSA they are bold, engaged in service, approachable; One Straw Farm put the church on the map with us, and we approached them about a different venture."

Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Cleveland is for the first time this year partnering with the neighboring YWCA and City Fresh, a nonprofit program of the New Agrarian Center (NAC) that seeks to build a more just and sustainable local food system in northeast Ohio, to operate Midtown FreshStop, with more than 50 members, half coming from outside Trinity's congregation, said Ben Borns, one of the project's coordinators.

"City Fresh offers half price to anyone on a limited income, discounts paid through grants and subsidized by the full-price payers. This is one of the areas we would like to grow," Borns said. "That's really the idea … it's a great way to reach out the neighborhood; there are not a lot of options other than fast food."

The benefits of participating in a CSA go beyond the economic benefits of supporting local agriculture, eating healthy foods at the time of harvest and building community; participating in a CSA potentially keeps nearby agricultural land out of development and reduces urban sprawl, Schut said.

Eating for the Future, a Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future program, which also includes the Baltimore Food and Faith initiative, studies and supports the connection between faith and food. In some instances it provides seed money for religious institutions looking to educate themselves about the connection and to get started, said Anne Palmer, Eating for the Future's program director.

"A lot of this is the caring-for-creation angle: if you are a person of faith, how do you live and act on that?" Palmer asked. "That decision is made in the food you serve, what you give to a food pantry. We're making people think about those things. This is the act; what are we saying with the act? Do you know who grew this food? Were they paid a fair wage? [Fair wage] can be a really big issue for some congregations. When people buy meat is it from the industrial complex? Can you make different choices?"

And ultimately, by supporting local farmers, buyers share in the risk.

"By participating in a CSA you share in the risk of agriculture and it can't be taken for granted … it connects you to the farmer, to the land, to God. It creates a healthy relationship," Schut said. "[Otherwise] we are disconnected from our food system; there's an absence of relationship."

Norman, of One Straw Farm, acknowledges that risk.

"Shareholders share the risk of the season, but after 26 years of farming [and 10 years of CSA], I'm not concerned about fulfilling my part," she said.

-- Lynette Wilson is staff writer, Episcopal Life Media.

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