It is possible for members of the Astoria C.S.A. to avoid grocery stores for weeks at a time.
The community-supported agriculture group, like the vast majority of C.S.A.s, offers vegetable shares, and it offers fruit shares, another common C.S.A. option. But it also offers a way to buy maple syrup, sliced sourdough bread, bacon, goat cheese, andouille sausage, whole chickens, leaf lard, bone marrow, freshly ground flour, and organically grown (and relatively fresh) beans. It offers extra herbs and a share of garlic. When tomatoes are most bountiful, members can take home twenty pounds, or more, and can them. Before Thanksgiving, they can order cranberries, fresh or dried. There’s an option to buy citrus fruit, an option to buy beer, and an option to buy wine.
“The only thing I go to a supermarket for now is if I want some seltzer,” says Stacey Ornstein, 30, one of the group’s founders. (Non-comestibles, like toilet paper, might also prompt a trip.)
C.S.A.s have existed in New York for more than a decade. At the outset of a growing season, C.S.A. members buy a share in a farmer’s crops, and each week receive their portion of whatever produce has been harvested. The initial idea was for a community to share in the risks of farming, and C.S.A.s have caught on across the country both as a means of supporting small farmers and of buying fresh, local food. Astoria C.S.A. is just one of the hundred-odd community-supported agriculture groups that have sprung up around the city, but its varied offerings put it among the most ambitious.
More notable, maybe, is the fact that this one is in Astoria, a neighborhood periodically classed with the city glossies among the up-and-coming, but which never quite seems to arrive, from their point of view. The prevalence of C.S.A.s, once a sign of a burgeoning hippie or artistic undercurrent in a New York neighborhood, is now a sign that a neighborhood is stepping on the escalator of upward mobility.
In fact it’s only one of three in the neighborhood, all bursting at the seams. Hellgate C.S.A. has a waiting list that grows to 400 people every spring; Harvest Astoria C.S.A. was formed after both Astoria and Hellgate C.S.A.s filled up; and there are rumblings that yet another C.S.A. might form in the neighborhood.
Astoria might seem the most unlikely of neighborhoods for the sustainable-food revolution to sink its teeth into. Its reputation for diversity rests on its immigrant communities and the food they imported from faraway lands—its emblems as a foodie destination, for people from outside the neighborhood, are the stores on 30th Ave. that offer bins of Greek olives or the Czech beer hall that may be Astoria’s most popular attraction.
But as prices go up in Park Slope, as young, hip professionals get a few years older and outgrow places like Williamsburg, as more Manhattanites and Brooklynites begin to register that Northwest Queens is a quick enough subway ride to just about anywhere, Astoria’s middle-class immigrant families are increasingly living side-by-side with the sorts of people who tend to idealize fresh, local produce—highly educated, mostly white, creative-class professionals.
JUST FIVE YEARS AGO, ASTORIA HAD ONLY one C.S.A.. The Queens C.S.A. was founded in 1996, and, according to its now-defunct website, began with just 20 members. The current C.S.A. explosion began in 2005 when Cara Fraver, then a 24-year-old AmeriCorps member, was assigned the task of starting a new group that would serve the aging population connected with the Ravenswood Senior Center. The idea was to create a C.S.A. that would be more accessible to a low-income community. Fraver ran the C.S.A. out of the senior center, and it had a shorter season and smaller shares, which kept the price down. It also accepted food stamps.
Still, Fraver struggled to find customers. The retirees, the main membership targets, ate a couple of meals at the senior center every day. Some of the older ladies would sit with her for four hours, chatting and yukking it up, while she waited for her C.S.A. members to pick up their share. But as a rule the retirees didn’t see why they should spend hundreds of dollars for vegetables when they only prepared one meal a day for themselves.
So Fraver had to broaden her search for members. Her greatest success came when she discovered the astorians.com forum, a powerful tool for recruitment. The forum also lead her to the Freeze Peach Café. (Say the name out loud, if you don’t get the joke.) A popular spot for tea, coffee, and community events near the Ditmars stop, the café was more than 2 miles away from the senior center distribution site. But once she connected with this community, Fraver began attracting a lot of members, she says.
It was through the forum that Laura Mello, 41, heard about the new C.S.A.. “I got a group of us together, and we started making the trek down there every Tuesday to pick up our veggies,” she said. Mello, a lawyer, had moved to Astoria in 1999 and joined the Queens C.S.A. back in 2000 or 2001. She found the required volunteer hours too unwieldy, though, and the overall cost unaffordable, and did not stick with it.
By the end of the first year belonging to the new C.S.A., Mello was committed enough to join the core group that took over from Fraver. They renamed the group Hellgate C.S.A. and moved it up to the Ditmars area, which was more convenient for many of the members.
As a rule, C.S.A.s can only grow so big before it becomes too much for the volunteer coordinators to handle or too much of a strain on the farmer’s production, and in 2006, the C.S.A. was distributing out of the Freeze Peach café, which meant space was limited. It was around this time that Queens C.S.A., Astoria’s first, closed down, too, and Hellgate absorbed the remaining members. In 2006, Hellgate sold 100 shares—a full load—by mid-summer and had more requests from potential members than they could support. Some Astorians who wanted in, like Stacey Ornstein, were relegated to the waiting list.
She and seven others started working to form their own group: what would become Astoria C.S.A.. “Our first year, our goal was 30 shares, and we sort of flipped out because that was the minimum for the farm to be worth it,” she says. “We had our first Q & A, and that night we had 80 people signed up. We sold 100 shares within a month.”
WHILE FRAVER SET OUT TO LINK A DIVERSE, low-income community to the C.S.A. model, she inadvertently tapped into demand for C.S.A.s in Astoria among the sorts of people that more typically flock to sources of fresh local food, but are not always associated with the neighborhood —white professionals in their 20s and 30s.
Today, the members of Astoria C.S.A., Ornstein says, are mostly young professional and young families, with maybe 15 percent of the members older than 50. On a pick-up day in September, the members who passed through were almost all white.
Hellgate C.S.A. serves a similar population. The majority of the members are in their 20s and 30s edging into 40s, according to Laura Mello, with a handful of older members. “The C.S.A. is mostly white and mostly non-immigrant, although there are people who nonwhite and people who are immigrants,” she said. “Non-native New Yorkers also seem more prevalent than native New Yorkers.
“Ten years ago, the whole concept of the C.S.A. would never have flown in Astoria,” said Liz Barcia, an Astoria C.S.A. member who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years. “There were no displaced Manhattanites and Brooklynites. It was still the old Italian and Irish and German neighborhood.”
Mello agrees the neighborhood is changing.
“The interesting thing is that they've been saying this about Astoria for the past ten years,” she said. “It's an awfully long time for a neighborhood to be changing like that.”
She remembers that, just around the time she moved to Queens, Time Out New York trumpeted Astoria on its cover as the next cool neighborhood. “I think, though, that because Astoria has always had a stable population, it hasn't changed as much as some neighborhoods,” she said.
Astoria does have a different profile than the hippest and fastest-changing neighborhoods in New York, like Greenpoint and Williamsburg, or Bed-Stuy and Ft. Greene. While those areas have a heavier concentration of people living on low incomes, making them accessible for the young and poorly paid, household income in Astoria clusters more heavily in the middle. In 2008, more Astorian households, 26.9 percent, fell into the city’s middle quintile of income ($37,865-$64,768) than into any other, according to data compiled by New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate & Urban Policy. The second largest group, 23.5 percent, took in between $64,769 and $108,114 each year.
Compared to a place like Park Slope, however, Astoria has not yet attracted families truly living large. In Astoria, 11.1 percent of households make more than $108,114; in Park Slope, 36.2 percent do.
Still, Astoria is changing. In 2000, the district’s white population was edging just over 40 percent; by 2008, it had crept above 50 percent, and the neighborhood had become less racially diverse overall, according to the Furman Center. In that same period, the foreign-born population dropped from 46 percent to 42.3 percent, and median household income increased by more than 20 percent, a significant increase compared to the city overall.
EVERY THURSDAY, FROM 4:30 TO 7:30, Astoria C.S.A.’s members stop by the ARROW Community Center to collect their shares. A volunteer greets them, checks off their names, and if they have add-ons, like the fruit or herb share, hands them a card to turn in when claiming their bounty. The shares come from the farm in boxes. Each member unpacks a box and carts away the contents in his or her own bags. The volunteers fold up the boxes: they’ll return them to the farmer next week for reuse. There’s a cutting board and a long knife on hand for anyone who wants to split vegetables in two, leaving half for a share partner. The herbs come in a separate box, unpacked by the volunteers, who pile the bright green bundles on one of the tables.
“When you open the box, that has nothing but herbs in it, it's like you've gone to heaven, it just smells so wonderful,” says Julia Mucci, one of the C.S.A.’s members.
The members come by in waves.
“Lots of part-time workers, actors and stay-at-home moms at the beginning,” said Stacey Ornstein. “It gets quiet around 5:00-5:30 and then the after-work folk arrive.”
The classic C.S.A. arrangement—veggies that come in weekly batches—forms the basis of Astoria C.S.A.’s offerings, but the many add-ons deviate from the baseline C.S.A. model. All of them come from organically and sustainability-minded farmers, who work more or less locally. The wine comes from an organic vineyard in Long Island, and the beer comes from Brooklyn’s Bierkraft. For more exotic products, though, there are trade-offs: The citrus fruit, for instance, comes from Florida, but is grown organically and shipped as efficiently as possible. The cranberries come from Massachusetts because no organic cranberry farm could be found in New Jersey. And the meats, cheeses, and other sundry goods come via an upstate cattle farm that coordinates with other farms to deliver products to more than 30 C.S.A.s in the New York area. There’s no set share—members can order piecemeal.
Beside the current offerings at Astoria C.S.A., ideas are being floated for olive oil, mushroom, or nut shares.
“We did do a coffee share at one point, but we stopped it this year, because it wasn't that popular,” Ornstein said. “We had a member who wanted to do a chocolate share, but she never got it off the ground.”
C.S.A.s generally have pretty high turnover—both Hellgate and Astoria C.S.A.s generally have about 50 percent of members renew each year. The cost per week is not high—for Hellgate it works out to about $15—but members have to pay $445 upfront, which can seem like a lot money. Members move, they chafe against the lack of choice, or they find they don’t use the amount of food they’re receiving. But plenty of people are waiting to fill their spots.
“I have so many friends who say to me, I wish I could belong to your C.S.A.,” said Mello, the Hellgate coordinator. But she says that knowing her won’t help them get in faster. “We've adopted the policy that we try not to do special interest membership; we try to keep it fair for everyone.”
For the people that do stick with it, a C.S.A. turns out to be a way into an actual community.
“We bought a house we had a baby, we're putting down roots, and I've met more and more people who are doing that,” said Mello. “I’ve met a tremendous number of people who are invested in making Astoria a great place, people who are interested in making sure the parks stay clean and safe and getting more bike path access and getting more food. I think there's a commitment to the community in Astoria, and C.S.A.s are part of that.”
In fact, C.S.A.s may only represent the advance guard; a number of Astoria C.S.A. members are working on starting food co-op. Right now, it’s scheduled to open in 2011.
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