The very thing that makes the community supported agriculture model a boon for farmers – customers pay for the whole season up front, enabling growers to purchase seeds, tools, and other supplies – has rendered CSA programs inaccessible to many low-income Americans, who typically don’t have several hundred dollars to spend all at once. But thanks to new language in last year’s Farm Bill, things are changing. Before the passage of the 2014 bill, farmers were able to accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, but USDA regulations required that payments be credited weekly, at the point of pickup. Not only did that rob farmers of early-season buying power; it also cost them hours spent processing the transactions each week (SNAP works on an electronic debit system).
Surprisingly, CSAs rarely accepted SNAP benefits until 2011, when Bryan Allan of Zenger Farm, a nonprofit educational center in Portland, Oregon, spearheaded a pilot CSA-SNAP program and developed online tutorials and a print manual to help other growers navigate the red tape involved in becoming certified to accept the benefits. “Everyone deserves access to fresh, healthy food, regardless of their income level,” says Allan, who advocated for the latest Farm Bill. And America’s family farms deserve all the customers they can get: If just 1 percent of the $74 billion in food stamps spent annually was redirected to CSA farms, the people with their hands in the dirt would harvest $740 million.