CSAs: Health Impacts and Barriers to Use


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Hoop House and Cherry Tomatoes

By Alyson McAdams, University of Michigan Dietetics Intern

When I started at the farm, I had heard the term “CSA” before, but didn’t know what the letters stood for. In the first couple days, I finally found out – “community supported agriculture”. In a CSA, the consumer pays the farmer up front for a ‘share’ of the produce, and the farmers provide fruits and vegetables each week through the season. The community supporting farmers, farmers providing food to the community–all great things I could get behind.

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CSA preparation and packing

The farm runs their own collaborative CSA with help from some local farmers and prepares weekly shares for their participants. They run a CSA in partnership with Parkridge Community Center in Ypsilanti that is fully subsidized CSAs for folks who otherwise may be unable to afford it. Each week I watched beautiful fresh fruits and veggies being packed into bags and distributed, while doing some recipe demos and sampling. All of this sounds so beautiful in theory — so I wanted to see the research to back it up. What were the individual health and wellness  impacts of participating in a CSA? If it was such a great program, what was getting in people’s way of participation?

What is preventing Americans from eating enough produce? The answer is long, complex, and ever-evolving. Income influences what and how people eat, and low-income consumers often have more barriers to fresh produce. However, most CSA members across the country are in middle- to high-income households, and the cost of CSAs prevents those with a lower income from participating (1), especially when they don’t know what or how much they will get from the CSA each week (2). However, cost-offset CSAs have been shown to be more accessible (1). Cost-offset CSAs are those which have had the price reduced in some way, either partially or fully. Reducing the price of CSAs, or accepting benefits such as SNAP, helps to remove the barriers to healthy food for many people.

What are the health benefits of getting a CSA? Eating a diet rich in fruits and veggies is good for our bodies and leads to better health outcomes over time (1). Eating vegetables can help lower our risk of chronic diseases while also maintaining a healthy weight (3).However, the average American’s fruit and vegetable intake is less than half of what is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans(1), and a third of the vegetables we eat are potatoes and tomatoes (3). This means we are missing opportunities to eat more vegetables, and we aren’t getting enough colors, vitamins, and minerals. A review done at Montana State University found that among CSA members, the amount AND variety of fruits and veggies eaten increases and more people are meeting the Dietary Guidelines standard, across socioeconomic status (4).

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Harvesting Greens

In studies comparing CSA and non-CSA members, CSA members ate more dark greens and yellow fruits and vegetables, and were taking in more fiber and Vitamin A (4). Fruits and vegetables contain many amazing vitamins and minerals, and the more variety we eat, the more nutrients we get. Many of the foods given out in CSAs have high levels of phytochemicals and antioxidants–which can be protective against cancers and inflammation. Increased fruit and vegetable intake over time is linked to lower risk of chronic disease, specifically heart disease (4). Through its amount and variety of produce, the studies found that a CSA is positive for individual health. Furthermore, in studies focusing on low-income CSAs, less than eight percent of the sample said that they had difficulty physically accessing fruits and vegetables, a marked difference from the control (1).

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Families at Farm to Table Camp

Participation in a CSA can also positively impact family life and health habits. Studies have shown that while participating in a CSA, families increasingly cook at home, cook as a family, and have family meals. Family meals increase the health and well-being of adolescents, while cooking together helps to teach children skills about food and cooking (4). Fruits and vegetables were more often served at snacks and meals, presumably replacing less healthy options (5). Eating at home means that families eat out less; Restaurant eating is associated with bigger portions and more calories, so switching to eating at home and preparing meals together is a great improvement (5).

Overall, CSAs appear to be linked to improved health, community, and well-being. More work needs to be done to conduct more research and make CSAs accessible to all people of all backgrounds, since the benefits apply to all. CSAs are an effective way for people to connect with their food, connect with a farm, and connect with each other.

References: 

(1) Hanson, K. L., Kolodinsky, J., Wang, W., Morgan, E. H., Pitts, S. B. J., Ammerman, A. S., … & Seguin, R. A. (2017). Adults and Children in Low-Income Households That Participate in Cost-Offset Community Supported Agriculture Have High Fruit and Vegetable Consumption. Nutrients, 9(7), 726.
(2) Cotter, E. W., Teixeira, C., Bontrager, A., Horton, K., & Soriano, D. (2017). Low-income adults’ perceptions of farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture programmes. Public health nutrition, 1.
(3) Wilkins, J. L., Farrell, T. J., & Rangarajan, A. (2015). Linking vegetable preferences, health and local food systems through community-supported agriculture. Public health nutrition, 18(13), 2392-2401.
(4) Harmon, A. H. (2014). Community supported agriculture: A conceptual model of health implications. Austin J Nutri Food Sci, 2(4), 1024.
(5) Vasquez, A., Sherwood, N. E., Larson, N., & Story, M. (2016). A novel dietary improvement strategy: Examining the potential impact of community-supported agriculture membership. Public health nutrition, 19(14), 2618-2628.

 

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One thought on “CSAs: Health Impacts and Barriers to Use

  1. Pingback: Growing a Healthy Community Through Community Supported Agriculture – St. Joe's Health Blog

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