How Internet Access Is Helping A CSA Tackle Local Food Justice

This article originally appeared on the Innovators Peak blog in September of 2014.

Just twenty minutes from downtown Denver lies a bucolic plot of land replete with vast, shady trees, thriving vegetable vines and a cool, swiftly moving stream. Here, the livelihood of goats, chickens, bees, and the land on which they stand is protected by a conservation easement.

Five Fridges Farm is also a CU Denver research site, where a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, is combining the farm-to-school model with both elementary and university student involvement. The experimental project addresses critical concerns of food justice and access in local Colorado schools, relying on knowledge from the internet to enact change.

Kate Farley, a graduate student in CU Denver’s sustainable agriculture program and creator of the Lettuce Turnip The Community CSA, first encountered the farm-to-school model at the Edible Peace Patch in Saint Petersburg, Florida. Although elementary students would be taken around the farm and taught about growing fruit and vegetables, Kate explains that another critical issue remained.

“The children were allowed to taste the vegetables, and that helped the health food education issue, but it still didn’t address the issue of access.”

Amanda Weaver, CU Denver professor and manager of Five Fridges Farm, agreed to host Kate’s experimental program.

The student-professor team worked together to address critical local farming issues, using the internet to find specific examples of what farm models were–and weren’t–successful.

“We used a nonprofit model to subsidize the crops, and we’ve partnered with five local families who come pick up a share each week” she tells me, hoisting a box filled with deep-crimson beets and setting them on the porch, preparing for the night’s end-of-season potluck.

The beets, which she canned herself, are a gift to the families and community members who participated in the project. She breezes back into the house to check on the eggplant parmesan, and for a moment I am left alone. Despite the fact that Five Fridges Farm sits betwixt apartment complexes, the urban farm still evokes a sense of being in the countryside, replete with shrill rooster calls and the endless shuffle of goat hooves.

Since most CSA’s try to provide five to seven different crops in each share of vegetables, developing a crop production plan was essential to knowing when each crop would be ready for harvest. But for a suburbanite-turned-farmer with little experience planting crops, Farley knew she had to turn to technology for help.

“In the beginning, I used the book,The Organic Gardeners Business Handbook as a reference. This book came with a companion CD that had crop production Excel templates on it, and these templates formed our crop production plan.”

As with any farm, chores are never ending and Kate knew she would need volunteers to help make the new farm model a reality. By sending out a description of the project to interested undergraduate students, she came up with a solid group of six volunteers who agreed to help her with the farm in exchange for a share of vegetables. Volunteers contributed their ideas to the crop plan while learning about crop production, horticulture techniques, and local food access issues.

Since one major roadblock to running CSA’s effectively is funding, Kate turned to online fundraising platforms to raise money for the farm so that it could be subsidized. This enabled family, friends and community members to learn about the project and easily support it by donating money online. Once Southwest Gardens–a local Wheat Ridge nursery–came across her project online, they donated all of the transplants she needed to begin planting.

As Kate preps the potluck table with Palisade peaches, seven-layer dip and potato soup, I am shown to a simple, yet highly valuable piece of technology by John McConnellogue, a senior at CU Denver who volunteers at the farm. John leads me around the front of a house and over a wire fence, following the snaking green garden hose. He picks up the hose and shows me to a small water meter. Since Kate initially planted crops that would use less water and water costs are included in the budget, the water meter is integral to ensuring the farm tracks its usage and stays sustainable.

The five elementary school families begin to arrive, bearing dishes of their own to contribute to the community dinner. The group sits in a circle in the side yard and indulges in homemade delicacies while Amanda speaks to the success of the program. After Kate thanks the families for their participation, she invites us all on a tour of the farm, delegating a task to the children.

“For tonight’s share, we’re going to pick whatever we want!”

The school children scurry through zucchini leaves and tomato vines, eagerly filling their arms with a rainbow of produce. She explains to me that internet access didn’t just help her develop an initial plan for the idea, but that she has relied on it throughout the process.

“When my tomatoes started getting bottom end rot, I turned to the internet to find detailed descriptions about what was causing it. I was able to save my entire tomato crop and keep feeding families.”

Although Farley had no previous experience with farm management, her willingness to instill change in the food system coupled with the infinite amount of available internet resources helped make the subsidized, farm-to-school model CSA a possibility.

Kate won’t stay at the farm forever, but she and Amanda have high hopes for what it will become. The relationship that Lettuce Turnip the Community has created between farmers, elementary school children, and university students holds great potential for the future of Colorado’s food system.