Lexicon of the commmunity food movement

It was suggested last week that I might do a talk for adult literacy providers about how food organizing connects to their work. I began to think about what I would frame such a talk, possibly focusing on how food organizers are working from the social determinants framework to understand the many barriers that restrict our neighbors from adopting healthy living strategies, just as those providers must do when working with their clients. But then I realized I needed to first discuss how the terms of the Direct-To-Consumer (DTC) sector can be a barrier to new users, yet how it is still important that we have our own terms. So I went to The Lexicon of Food for some crowd-sourced definitions, to the USDA site,  to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Community Commons for their definitions of the types of outlets or initiatives we use. I will add more definitions in later posts and also would love to hear any refinement that you think mine need.

Community supported agriculture (CSA): An up-front investment by a consumer into a farm that is “paid back” by that farm with a share of those goods during the harvest season(s). To me, this term is an example that desperately needs to be updated or at least specific types of CSAs clustered and named. After all, the name does not really tell you anything; it does not indicate they are outlets or even that they are part of direct to consumer channels. As a matter of fact, it really should be the name for ALL of the community food movement work! No wonder it is used to describe so many types of activities….

The original concept was that through buying a CSA membership, one entered into a partnership with a nearby farm and this cash infusion allows the farmer to pay for seed, water, equipment, and labor early in the season when farm expenses are high and farm income is low. I have had the great luck of touring the first CSA in the US (Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts) some years back and hearing the story and the collaboration that made it a CSA. I think that story and others like it should be a bigger part of the newly named types as it reflects its simple and elegant idea to directly support farmers through a most meaningful connection to individual neighbors and even a mutual dependency that is likely the most transformative for both producers and eaters among DTC outlets. 

The USDA definition: A farm or network/association of multiple farms that offer consumers regular (usually weekly) deliveries of locally-grown farm products during one or more harvest season(s) on a subscription or membership basis. 

-I think it is vital that within the definition of a CSA, it is understood that the funds are given directly to farmers, which makes it different than a market box (see below). What is also needed is shorthand to define and describe the customer interaction as CSAs now often include the delivery of the goods to a “hub” location where a local business or a CSA subscriber manages the handoff to the shareholders, more often called members. In previous iterations, on-farm pickup and quite often actual volunteer hours by members was expected by most CSA farms, but that is a rare occurrence now. Simon Huntley of Small Farms Central has clearly laid out a definition and possible future solutions for the CSA community here.

farmers markets: Since the 1970s, this term has been defined by farmers, organizers, and communities as a regularly occurring event where regionally-produced farm goods are sold directly by those who made or foraged the items. in 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) had 8,717 farmers markets in their directory.

The apostrophe that once was used for this term has been largely dropped off as more communities organize them for a multitude of reasons and hoped-for outcomes, thereby sharing “ownership” of the market with the vendors. Like CSAs, the name is misused by some who are not offering the same direct relationship between the grower and the buyer, which is a purpose that is core to the mission of the majority of farmers markets. Some states have added definitions to their statutes in order to stomp out these fake markets. Like  CSAs, I think that markets need to make the case more clearly that they are organized* and are meant to address local conditions in farming, in economic sovereignty and in civic engagement. 

  • Recently, someone at USDA said to me, “As far as I can tell, the only characteristic that is shared across all farmers markets is that they are organized.” That struck me as quite true and yet it also struck me later that it may be the single characteristic least known or little understood about markets among consumers, potential stakeholders and sometimes even farmers.

It is possible that other iterations of markets may crop up, such as a version for intermediate buyers only (specialty stores, restaurant chefs) who need case prices and quantities that may be difficult to get through farmers markets as they are designed presently. If they do begin to crop up, it is possible that the market organization may become a facilitator not only in the design and management of the market itself but could offer a single invoicing system for all of the sales and then reimburse farmers more quickly. Those are likely to still be known as farmers markets, but may need an added descriptor such as a “by-the-case farmers market.” In those cases, the direct relationship between the buyer and the producer is still maintained but may need an added certification entity to oversee the delivery and marketing of those goods once the sale has been completed. 

In the most recent FMPP/LFPP cycle, my organization Farmers Market Coalition partnered with technology platform Farmspread to refine one such process where Local Food Authorities (LFAs) such as “grown here” or “buy fresh buy local” chapters would add to their promotion of local goods with an authentication of those who use the term local by first building  consensus on what local really means and then overseeing the certification of both local buyers and sellers, according to their level of agreement. Chapters are the most obvious form of LFAs- and farmers markets are included in most chapters – but farmers markets on their own may also be directly considered LFAs.

farm stand: also known as a roadside stand usually managed by a single farm business or maybe neighboring farms often in a set location with either some shelving and overhead protection or maybe a gravel space for vehicles. Unfortunately, in many states, a reseller of goods can use the term even if nothing is produced locally. 

In California, the definition has been refined and expanded and it seems that there are two kinds of farm stands: 1) a farm stand that does NOT sell value-added goods is now defined as a “field retail stand” and one that does sell value-added goods (including bottled water) is what is now known as a “retail food facility.”

Field retail stands are restricted to selling whole produce and shell eggs grown by the producer on or near the site, exempt from standard wholesale size and pack requirements. These traditional field stands are exempt from California Health and Safety Code, as long as they adhere to the previous set of rules.

Farm stands that make use of these new regulations—and sell anything other than fresh, farm-produced fruits, vegetables, nuts and shell eggs—are considered “retail food facilities,” and are therefore regulated by California Health and Safety Code. But requirements for farm stands are much less strict than those for most retail food facilities.

Food desert: The CDC defines this as areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet. More often these days, you see Low Access Areas or Low Supermarket Access used instead. To qualify as a “low-access community,” at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).

-Note: A few years back, researchers at Tulane University here in our swampy New Orleans decided that the term “food swamp” was apter than food desert. Here is their explanation: “The caloric imbalance that leads to obesity is, of course, an issue about entire diets, not specific foods.  But the extensive amount of energy-dense offerings available at these venues may, in fact, inundate, or swamp out, what relatively few healthy choice foods there are.  Thus, we suggest that a more useful metaphor to be used is ‘food swamps‘ rather than food deserts.”

food hub: USDA definition: Offering a combination of aggregation, distribution, and marketing services at an affordable price, food hubs make it possible for many producers to gain entry into new larger-volume markets that boost their income and provide them with opportunities for scaling up production.

I’d add to that food hubs seem to have two characteristics in that they are always a physical location- and therefore have a chance for investment by private and public funders – and that they act as at least one or more of these things: an aggregator space for food items, an incubator for businesses and/or as a marketing hub or all of those and more. Therefore, the reality is there is a wide difference between food hubs.

I’d also like to raise the theory that the food hub movement was begun with such gusto because farmers markets have taken a long time to “professionalize” (don’t be defensive as I don’t mean markets are unprofessional, just that market organizations have not been able to attract long-range support for their staffing and structure needs and so many have remained in “start up mode” for years, even decades);  since investors have been unable to collect data to assess the impacts of farmers markets and/or because market organizations have limited management structures, food hubs were prioritized in some areas and by some funders.

Additionally, as many of you know, I assess the difference between local food efforts and regional food systems as being 1) lack of production infrastructure and 2) lack of policy advocacy by network leaders and 3) lack of attention to the specific needs of different groups of buyers, such as family table shoppers versus specialty store/bistro restaurants or even pallet wholesale buyers. That regional approach is where food hubs have done some serious work and where market organizations might want to stick a toe in the water so to speak.

I think a meeting of minds of food hubs and markets is overdue and in some cases might even be merged into one entity.

market box: An aggregated collection of seasonal items offered weekly or at least regularly either through a subscription through a farm or through the sales of an organization such as a market. The box supports sales for local farmers and often also a percentage is shared with the entity who manages the sales and the pickups. Often mislabeled as a CSA, but able to include new users for a shorter period of time and can be used to incentivize vendors at a “food security” market where less shoppers attend, but nearby institutions can accelerate the sales with a weekly markert box from the vendors. I first saw this idea in Los Angeles at one of SEE-LA’s markets which actually accelerated my organization’s thinking around crafting a market typology that continues to this day among some researchers. 

mobile market: I had a difficult time finding a definition of this, but did find a good one on Community Commons: Mobile markets are typically renovated trucks or trailers that carry fresh and healthy foods into urban communities. A mobile market may visit a neighborhood once a week or a few times a month on a set schedule. Many mobile markets accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, payments or have subsidies that make the food affordable to people with little or no income.

The mobile market term is one that I see loosely applied to many types of initiatives and often used interchangeably with farmers markets. Obviously, the mobile market shares some characteristics with the usual definition of farmers markets, including “pop up” locations, some collective authority of what is allowed, being organized  and the ability to use SNAP or other cards to purchase goods through one central terminal. What is less universal about mobile markets versus farmers markets is the localness of the food purchased and the type of programming on market day to increase intellectual capital and social cohesion.  Still, the mobile markets may offer those two previous points so as it stands today, the main difference between farmers markets and mobile markets is the direct part: producers are not present during the transactions of the mobile market.

Interestingly, the page that I accessed for this definition has many examples on it, but almost all of those links are broken, with many of those initiatives seemingly being redesigned or shelved for now.  One reason for the difficulty in maintaining mobile markets seems to be the ongoing funding for mobile markets, but also that some mobile marksts do their best to evolve into farmers markets or farm stands as soon as possible. 

By the way, this was my analysis when my organization attempted to collaboratively design one such mobile market after the 2005 levee breaks in New Orleans. 


Okay, I’m stopping here. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

More to come…..











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