Unsplah/Bodie Pyndus
Recent debates over food system ethos and terminology missed a key step: what do these terms even mean?

Farm Last mile Shelf

In July, New York Times writer Julia Moskin lamented the increasing misuse of the term “CSA” in an article, “When Community-Supported Agriculture Is Not What It Seems.” The term, she argued, was once used to describe a direct farm-to-customer relationship, but is now invoked liberally by middlemen—sometimes by companies that are genuinely trying to build new markets for small farmers, but more often by cynical opportunists selling any old local-ish food in a box. For Moskin, these in-between players are a betrayal of the community-supported agriculture ethos, regardless of their practices and intent. “The presence of a middleman between the farmer and the customer is precisely what traditional C.S.A.s are designed to avoid,” she wrote.

The article generated some backlash for its blanket condemnation of the local food chain’s middle links. In an op-ed titled “Local Agriculture Needs The New York Times to Dig Deeper,” food hub founder and Modern Farmer board member Donna Williams challenged the Times to talk a more nuanced game. Williams doesn’t take issue with Moskin’s criticism of the co-optation of the term for marketing purposes (marketing is a whole other story). But she does have a problem with the implicit argument that middlemen are always bad for small-scale farmers and regional food systems.

While both articles made some good points, they failed to do a crucial thing: clearly define for eaters (who are paying into a system that freely uses and commodifies these terms) what “CSA” and “food hub” actually mean—point out what they are and aren’t—and clarify the differences between the two. 

WebClaire Brown

Admittedly, the fundamental distinctions between CSAs and food hubs (and “farmers’ markets” and “incubators” and “local” and “organic” and “artisanal”…) can be murky. Some organizations even host all of the above under one roof. That opens up an opportunity for savvy marketers, who realize the confused public won’t call out their appropriation of feel-good terms. And those of us in food media sometimes add to the confusion. Williams points out that, even though her business has never self-identified as a CSA, it still gets called one in the press.

So, let’s get some clarity. What is a CSA and how is it different from a food hub?

The CSA model began cropping up in the United States in the 1980s. Farms like Indian Line Farm and Temple-Wilton Community Farm (in Western Massachusetts and New Hampshire, respectively) asked their patrons to pay upfront for several months of vegetables, receiving in return a weekly delivery of seasonal goods. This approach helped farmers raise funds when they most needed it, a crucial cash infusion that covered startup costs like seeds and new equipment. Even better, they guaranteed sales over an extended period of time. For consumers, the CSA arrangement represented a chance to directly support a farm’s operations, making an investment that paid out in veggies deep into the fall. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a decision to share in a farm’s risk, understanding that the success of each year’s crop will be varied and uncertain.

Offerings from a Brooklyn-based "CSA." Can you spot the items that aren't grown in Brooklyn?

Offerings from Brooklyn-based “CSA” Local Roots. Can you spot the items that aren’t grown in Brooklyn?

Today, CSAs are often a vital part of a small farm’s business; when they work well, customers tend to be fiercely loyal. The nature of those relationships makes it perfectly logical that farmers and local food advocates would want to protect the term “CSA” from co-optation by marketers of subscription services that look similar on the consumer side but function very differently on the supply side.

The fact remains, however, that in order to get more real food from the ground to more people who want it, local producers need middlemen to help them extend their reach. Any regional food system without middlemen will always remain on the fringe because it won’t grow. The CSA model is a great option for farmers’ market shoppers, but if a farmer wants to reach more people, it’s not going to be enough.

WebClaire Brown

These terms come from the USDA

That’s where food hubs come in.

Food hubs (like incubators and other food movement phenomena) were born out of necessity. But their model is a lot newer than the CSA model, and it’s harder to pin down exactly how they work. The USDA defines them as “a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.”

Yes, food hubs are aggregators and distributors, but the term “source-identified” is crucial here: this isn’t about stockpiling anonymous goods from any old place. It’s about facilitating direct farm-to-fork connections with complete transparency, promoting the brands of growers and makers alongside the products. Food hubs occupy the space between the CSA and the broadline distributor, aggregating produce from several farms at a volume large enough to satisfy institutional clients, while prioritizing local sourcing and facilitating relationships between farmers and their customers. Within this general framework, though, there’s a lot of variety, which is one reason why the Wallace Center and Michigan State University publish a study every year trying to pin down exactly what food hubs do and how they do it.

WebClaire Brown

So, let’s review. A farmers’ market is a food hub: it’s a commerce center that distributes food that connects directly back to its source. The warehouse of a produce subscription service can be a food hub it acts as a platform for local vendors (but maybe not a CSA, depending on your definition, if the goods aren’t paid for upfront). And a farmer co-op is a food hub, as is an online market like Good Eggs, which markets farm-specific local goods. But a Sysco warehouse is not a food hub, because it’s not sourcing just local food—and the USDA defines local as anything within 400 miles. Blue Apron is not a food hub, because its anonymized products are aggregated from all over the country at four large distribution centers; it’s also not a CSA, since it doesn’t support farms with upfront end-consumer cash.

Moskin may be right to point out that “CSAs” are being sold to people who don’t understand or appreciate the model’s direct-to-customer origins. But that doesn’t mean we should be skeptical of any and all middlemen. Food hubs are critical pieces of infrastructure, offering economies of scale that aren’t achievable with direct-to-customer models. A large restaurant, for instance, can’t plan its menu a month in advance based on whatever a single farmer can harvest in a given week. And individual farms aren’t equipped to sell to institutional customers either—but food hubs are equipped to take large-scale orders from hospitals, universities, and public schools using software purchasing platforms like Local Eyes. Despite their differences, food hubs and CSAs are essentially working toward the same goal: creating (or recreating) vibrant, accessible, robust local food systems. 

WebClaire Brown

Marketing teams will always capitalize on a trend or a buzzword whenever there’s any gray area. And there’s only one thing that can ensure proper use of terms like CSA” and “food hub”: a better-educated public. So when we talk about “the middle,” perhaps we should not only talk about middlemen, and whether or not they help or hinder the efforts of regional food systems. Maybe it should also include what we’re talking about here—that other “middle,” the great, wide-open knowledge gap that eaters can fall into between farm and fork.