Sliding Scale Success

I'm experimenting with a sliding-scale pricing option this year, as you may remember from when you signed up for the CSA. As I described the situation on the website, “It's a reality that our country's food system maintains low prices through environmental degradation, worker exploitation, and government programs; that subsidy and regulation favor processed food designed to sell rather than to nourish; that access to fresh healthy food is difficult for those without the financial security and education to buy it; and that wealth is largely a product of the possibilities afforded by our parents' socioeconomic situation and our education―simply, of our access to opportunity.”

On one level, the sliding scale is simply a way for someone to elect to price the CSA slightly differently depending on their present income. But, at a deeper level, the purpose of the sliding scale is to create a way to engage with historical disadvantage.

For the past few weeks, since August 20th, I've been hearing a lot about 1619 in the news. On that date 400 years ago the first Africans were brought to America, where, for the next 250 years, black people were enslaved to build our economy, and then for another 100 years terrorized and legally kept from the opportunities to gain education and financial power. It's no surprise that this legacy has not been washed away in the 50 years since the climax of the Civil Rights movement. In my own schooling I remember learning about the Civil Rights era as past history, but it's really still present history to many. Fifty years of legal equality does not erase 350 years of social inequality, especially when most of our parents―our cultural and economic starting point―were born in a time when open discrimination was accepted and black people were kept from education, owning property, getting jobs, etc.

While I didn't make a big deal on the website about linking the sliding scale idea to our history of racial inequality (since I know not everyone holds the same narrative on this topic), it is clear to me that in America generational access to opportunity and financial power is in large part based on race.

This recent article in The Atlantic described how this familiar story played out for farming: from black land ownership, to white land ownership, to―in fact―corporate land ownership.

This is what I wrote on the CSA website: “Sliding Scale pricing allows people with financial resources to elect to pay more for their share in order to make the CSA available to people who have not had the opportunity to build financial security and thus, under our inequitable food system, are unable to access the healthy, well-grown food that CSA members enjoy.”

Since this was a trial―an experiment―I didn't know what to expect. I just wanted people to consider and decide for themselves. It turned out that about 45% of CSA folks decided to pay somewhat more than retail for their CSA. That was the simple part, it turned out. Since I knew there was little chance of anyone writing in requesting to pay on the lower end of the sliding scale (and indeed, nobody did), I figured I would work with a nonprofit to find the people who could make best use of the reduced-price shares. However―of course―social service organizations focus on the people in greatest need, not people who are doing okay but don't have the resources to prioritize spending on a CSA! Nevermind the fact that there are many barriers to CSA membership besides money, like the time and energy to prioritize cooking dinner, a kitchen to cook it in, and a stable schedule with transportation to pick up the share, to name a few.

I talked with my fellow farmer friends about how to bridge these barriers, about what to do with the reduced-price shares that I, in fact, had no audience for. We talked in the spring. We talked in the summer. We talked to friends of friends and eventually we put all the logistical pieces together and tried it out. And everything has been working smoothly. The money paid beyond retail price offset the CSA cost for 12 people in Southwest DC who, for the last few weeks, have been receiving CSA shares every Friday. All are extremely appreciative of the opportunity to cook with this food.

This was one of the bigger risks I took in designing the CSA this year so thank you, to all of my CSA folks, for engaging with these ideas and truly being Community Supported Agriculture members.