As a farm that runs a CSA, we often hear people call CSA a food co-op and vice versa. But, there is a big difference between CSA & a food co-op. So we like to try to help clarify whenever we see the two terms confused as part of our ongoing effort to educate about what a CSA is. A few key differences are:
- CSA is about connecting directly with the farm(s) and farmers who are growing your food, hence 'Community Supported Agriculture'. Food co-ops introduce one or more middlemen between you & the farm. Your food is usually sourced from wholesale distribution and your connection to the farm is pretty much the same as it is when you buy from a grocery store.
- In a CSA you know your farmer(s) personally. In a Food co-op, you most likely never meet the people who grow your food, nor do you get to visit the farm.
- CSA is about supporting your local food grower & local economy who gets the entire dollar amount you spend on the food. Food co-ops usually buy through wholesale distribution same as a grocery store where the farm only receives a portion of the money you spend on the food.
- CSA implies risk - that is farm disaster, crop failure may impact your share delivery. You don't get this with a food co-op because of the nationwide/worldwide food sourcing, much like buying your produce from a grocery store.
- CSA foods are seasonal & grown locally; not so with food co-ops in general.
There is nothing wrong with food co-ops; in fact, they can be a good way to source additional produce for your family. However, we hope you understand now that they are not at all the same as a CSA, and those that call their co-ops CSA's can give a bad impression about real CSA's. For instance, you might hear of a (supposed) “CSA” that is signing people up and delivering bushels of produce every week when Barking Cat Farm's CSA is suspended due to the drought conditions making it impossible to grow anything. You might reasonably wonder why this other “CSA” is able to provide food while BCF cannot. Unless that other “CSA” farm is growing in greenhouses or has spent a lot of time and energy drought-proofing their farm, they are likely not actually growing most of their food but rather buying it from distribution. In our opinion, this is dishonest. And that sort of operation is more accurately called a food co-op or buying club, not a CSA where the subscriber knows the farmer who actually grew the food.
Local sourcing for food co-ops is very difficult in this area because there are not enough farmers to support the demand and selling into wholesale distribution is generally not profitable for small farms. If your food co-op says they try to source locally, ask who the farms are if supporting local farmers is important to you.