Community Supported Agriculture Takes Root in Los Angeles
by Erin Richards
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, shouts and laughter echo from the schoolyard at Rio Vista Elementary in North Hollywood. In the front of the school, boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables are sprawled along a folding table, crammed underneath and lined up against the wall. Volunteers Lisa Mann and Marion Fregeolle organize the overflowing boxes of crimson strawberries, golden tangerines and crisp red lettuce for the crush of afternoon patrons of CSA California.
“There are a lot of favorites here today,” said Fregeolle. “The strawberries especially, they are so ripe, and people are excited about the escarole too.”
CSA California is only one of a handful of organizations dedicated to giving consumers a chance to get the freshest produce sourced from local, organic and sustainable farms. CSA or community supported agriculture, where consumers would buy a “share” of a farm’s produce. This has evolved in Los Angeles, where residents are looking for ways to get the best produce, without breaking the bank and keeping an eye on their ecological impacts.
“Whatever we do, we carefully source the products,” said CSA California founder Sara Paul. “We’ve really done our research; you have to really know your farm.”
Although CSA California is just over two years old, the organization has spread via word-of-mouth , now serving between 250 to 300 consumers a week. For $25 a bag, you get 12-15 items and can choose to get a bag each week or every other week at one of the dozen central pick-up locations.
Jennifer Bastian, a mother of three from Burbank, is one of the first to arrive, with her 5-year-old son, Quint in tow. She holds out her reusable blue bag as Fregeolle doles out her bounty of produce.
“You get a pound and a half of tangerines, two pounds of red potatoes and a bunch of carrots, golden beets…,” Fregeolle explains placing each item in Bastian’s bag. An addition of kale, joi choi, escarole, red lettuce, green onions and a carton of strawberries leave Bastian’s two bags overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables.
“It’s definitely helping the health of my family,” Bastian said. “My husband hates vegetables, but we’re trying new things and learning that we do like them. I discovered that I like kale, but I never had it before this.”
Lisa Beebe, a local writer walks her dog to the pickup, stopping to gaze at the red potatoes.
“Oh, those are pretty,” said Beebee. “Maybe I will use these today,” she said, grinning.
“My friends and I call it veggie Christmas,” said Beebee. “We’re kind of obsessed with it and we get really excited. I’m the kind of person who would say that I don’t like beets even though I’ve never had one. But now, It’s like every week is an adventure and I make something awesome. I love that.”
As more people line up, they eye the week’s goods. In line are 29-year-olds Kendelle Hoyer and Scott Watanabe for their weekly pick up.
“It’s fresh, its local and organic and reasonably priced,” said Watanabe. “It also forces us to eat new things and a different variety of foods.”
“I think that farming should be moving in this direction more,” added Hoyer, munching on a strawberry. “It doesn’t use a lot of energy, and ends up helping people and the planet.”
Paul and CSA California have carefully vetted their participating five farms, all within a few hours of Los Angeles, looking for sustainable and organic farming practices, crop rotation and other responsible farming practices. They have even dropped a farm for supposedly inhumanely trapping rodents.
The CSA programs are also fostering a loyalty to not only the food and the farm, but also to its farmer.
“The farmers are becoming the celebrities now,” Paul said.
One of Paul’s choice farms is Weiser Family Farms, a collection of 160 acres of farmland across Southern California. Those two pounds of red potatoes came from Weiser farms.
“People know our stuff and know that were good farmers, that we keep our prices down and that we’re good stewards of the land,” said farmer and patriarch Alex Weiser. “Through CSAs and farmers markets, people know you face to face. It keeps your costs down and in the field more.”
CSA California is not Weiser’s only CSA. They are also involved in other Los Angeles organizations, like Farm Box LA started by farming enthusiast Reisha Fryzer. Volunteering at a farm in Malibu, Fryzer started making boxes of extra produce for friends and the demand grew.
“It was life changing, I know what passion means by growing my own food,” Fryzer said. “I thought how can I connect all these farmers and get it to the people, and decided to develop my own company that gets the produce directly to consumers.”
For a range of $50-$100 a box, a family of up to six people can get the choicest produce delivered right to their doorstep. For Farm Box LA, convenience as well as freshness is key. Clients can choose to have weekly, bi-weekly or even monthly deliveries to a home or office.
“The feedback is that it’s very convenient and offers families a big variety and the produce is significantly better,” Fryzer said. “Parents will tell me that kids start eating vegetables and people are cooking a lot more and spending more time at the dinner table.”
Like CSA California, Farm Box LA is also growing. Started only last June, the organization has grown to serve about 70 families a week, along with a few schools. Farm Box LA is in charge with delivering the snacks to Sunnyside Preschool in the San Fernando Valley.
CSA’s are also cropping up in the city itself. Farmworks LA, a nonprofit devoted to bringing urban agriculture to the forefront, currently grows crops on a five acre plot in the shadow of the 110 freeway.
Formerly a neglected part of Elysian Park, the plot is the site for Farmworks’ restaurant CSA program, serving weekly harvested fruits, vegetables and herbs to three local eateries.
Armed with garden shears and brown hiking boots, Al Renner reaches to harvest the pods off a towering stalk of fava beans.
Snip, thunk. Snip, Thunk. Snip Thunk.
One-by-one, Renner tosses the shiny- green beans into a nearly full box.
Renner, the executive director of the LA Garden Council is one of the founders of Farmworks LA. “I’m like the grandfather, he said, grinning under his sweat-soaked ball cap. “It’s a whole process and bio-organic program experimenting in urban farming.”
Trendy breakfast spot Square One, upscale Melrose Larchmont Grill and downtown eatery Homegirl Café all benefit from their partnership with the farm, getting two bushels, about 70 pounds, of fresh seasonal produce each week.
“The restaurants love it,” said Renner. “We have them knocking on our door.”
Mark Donofrio, co- owner of the Larchmont Grill, has partnered with Farmworks LA since its inception. His commitment to the farm project is due both to his devotion to local farming and desire to provide the highest standard of food to his customers.
“I’m a farmer at heart and this program is fantastic,” Donofrio said. “It’s organic, grown in LA and helps lower our carbon footprint. It’s been wonderful for us, from a cultural perspective, you don’t do it to save money; you do it for a sense of pride.
The Larchmont Grill will highlight crops from the field with special menus for the seasonal items, including homemade hummus, desserts with berries and dishes with fresh tomatoes and potatoes.
“We used to have dishes with spinach, but we’ve changed that to mixed farm greens,” said Donofrio. “Living in California, we have the advantage to grow year round. We can grow local and get local.”
Fryzer, Paul and Renner consider the demand toward local and sustainable produce to be on the rise, and a signal of a larger trend towards ecologically conscious consumers making informed choices about food.
“Standards are changing,” said Paul. “People don’t completely trust what it means for big food producers to say they’re “organic,” they want to know their food.”
Although there are a number of CSA programs in LA, Fryzer welcomes the competition, pointing to a rise in demand.
“We are more like a big community,” Fryzer said. “There are plenty of mouths to feed in Los Angeles.”
Sidebar 2: Challenges with Los Angeles Urban Agriculture
by Erin Richards
Rising health and ecological awareness has caused more Los Angeles residents to choose food options from locally-grown, sustainable and organic sources. Growing demand has given rise to a number of farming and gardening projects to sprout up throughout the city, igniting a passion for food growing. However, there are also significant challenges to urban agriculture and drawbacks to growing your food in your industrial backyard.
Two of the biggest issues facing would-be and existing gardeners are about resources in an urban environment like Los Angeles. Water and land-use issues plague growers and can often negate potential farming projects.
“In the city, farmers have problems maintaining access to city land,” said Stephanie Pincetl, director of UCLA’s Center for Sustainable Urban Systems. “Farms are not protected like parks are and farmers are not guaranteed access to that land over the long-term.”
Some of the same uncertainties lie in private gardening projects as well. The Venice Community Garden leases their 5000 square-foot garden from local restaurant owner. However, their lease agreement allows for the owner to develop the property at any time.
“He couldn’t develop this lot because of the economy, so we decided to make a garden project out of it,” said garden director Kip Wood. “He likes to get his checks every month, but there is that uncertainty.”
Water usage is another battle for urban farmers, as water allocations are almost prohibitively expensive for small growers unless given a special agriculture rate by LADWP. Al Renner, the executive director of the LA Garden Council, acts as a watchdog of water rates, making sure that DWP doesn’t try to charge residential rates to any of the dozen agriculture and gardening projects managed by the Garden Council.
“They try to change it back all the time,” Renner. “We have to constantly watch the rates to make sure that they are getting the right one.”
According to Pincetl, LA currently subsidizes water to certain farm projects, but growing budget woes make inexpensive water impossible for the city to offer.
“As less water becomes available, some kinds of choices will have to be made in terms of water allocation,” she said. “To move toward sustainability, we have to think about how to create circumstances where people don’t water their lawns and instead we use that water for gardening.”
Even if land and water are available, the types of land found in the city may all have drawbacks for farming. In Los Angeles, where urban development and industrialization have been city mainstays for decades, soils in empty plots can be toxic from residual chemicals.
At the Venice Community Garden, toxic amounts of chromium, lead, arsenic and other heavy metals were found in the soil, making them unable to plant in the existing soil.
“There used to be a rail line here, and they used arsenic to kill weeds along the rail lines. All of that arsenic is still in the ground,” said Wood.
More than 100 tons of contaminated soil was taken out the garden and new soil was brought in and placed in raised beds that serve as plots for garden members.
Agriculture in the city brings together a bundle of city issues, including problems with planning codes, taxes, management. Because farming is so foreign to LA, snags with city codes and management can run amok.
Currently, the city is trying to raise fees for gardens on city land, charging an annual fee of $120 to garden. Community gardens across the city are leveraging to change the proposed fee increase.
“It’s a constant battle and ongoing issue,” Renner said, sighing.
Aside from fees, city planning codes are also unclear in terms of selling produce grown in the city, even on private land.
Tara Kolla, of Silverlake Farms, was selling her homegrown fruits and flowers for years at farmers markets before being informed that it was against a city code to do so. The code, written in the 1940s dictated that only vegetables could be grown in the city and sold. This bizarre code caused Kolla and other farming enthusiasts to form the Urban Farming Advocates and were able to lobby the city to re-write the code last year.
“The code was ridiculous, since some fruits are flowers. The planning department knew it was ridiculous,” said Erik Knutzen, an author and member of the Urban Farming Advocates. “We need to challenge all those rules wherever they are. Ultimately we need to start doing things and forgetting about these ridiculous codes.”
Sidebar 1:Los Angeles CSA Rundown, at-a-glance CSA programs in LA
complied by Erin Richards
What’s in the bag? Vegetables and fruit directly from a mix of 5 local sustainable and organic farms
How often? Weekly or bi-weekly
How much? $25 a bag
Where can I get it? Any one of about a dozen pick up locations across the city and throughout the week
Interesting tidbit: $2 from each bag goes to support gardens at local schools
Farm Box LA
What’s in the bag? Vegetables and fruit directly from a selection of farms that participate in Los Angeles farmers markets
How often? Weekly, bi-weekly or monthly
How much? $50 for a 1-2 person bag, $75 for a 3-4 person bag, $100 for a 5-6 person bag
Where can I get it? Delivered directly to your door, at home or at work
Interesting tidbit: Farm Box will even offer recipes and cooking tips for the items in that week’s bag.
Silver Lake Farms
What’s in the bag: Fruits and vegetables from one of three local properties in Silverlake. Bread and flowers available in addition.
How often? Weekly
How much? $25 a week for a 5 or 10 week share
Where can I get it? Pick up Fridays 3-7 at corner of Rowena and Hyperion Ave.
Interesting tidbit: Owner and farmer Tara Kolla also grows and sells organic loofah sponges.
Pedal Patch Community
What’s in the bag: Fruits and vegetables from local farmers as well as options for preserves and grass fed beef, pasture-raised chicken and eggs
How often? Weekly or twice a month
How much? $35 a week or bi-monthly for a season (14 weeks) protein items monthly minimum is $50
Where can I get it? Produce at three different pick up locations, protein items shipped directly
Interesting tidbit: Pedal Patch Community will let you do a 1-month trial of the produce box for $168
Farm Share LA (with Abundant Harvest Organics)
What’s in the bag? Organic fruits and vegetables from farms in Central California delivered weekly. Additional items available including fresh herbs, specials and protein items raw milk, eggs, nuts, grains, meat and poultry.
How often? weekly
How much? $21. 80 for small box (feeds 1-2) or $36.80 for large box (feeds 3-4)
Where can I get it? Currently two pick up locations, one in Pasadena and one in Northeast LA both on Saturday mornings.
Interesting tidbit: If you have a business license you can start your own pick-up location and branch of Abundant Harvest Organics, earning 6 percent of sales of your resident location.
Links From Class: Week 15 (Apr 21)
This weeks links agree that “the problem is that there aren’t many Santa Monica smurfs around the world:”
- Greenland is melting, according to National Geographic.
- Florida is drowning, according to the University of Kansas.
- Acidic oceans are dangerous, according to Elizabeth Kolbert.
- The world needs miraculous new energy technologies, according to NOVA’s Power Surge documentary.
- And, according to the internets, SMURRF is real.
If you have anything to add, add it.