In the Upper Peninsula, finding an affordable CSA is a SNAP

Twenty years ago, at age 30, Donna* sustained injuries in the workplace that left her permanently disabled. She grew up in a home where healthy foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables, were a centerpiece of every meal. Donna's mother not only cooked nutritious recipes from scratch, but also gardened and canned. So, when Donna's income became limited due to her disability, she felt deeply disheartened that she could no longer afford the foods she was accustomed to eating on her food budget of $30 a week.

"In the last couple of years, I was really having to cut back on buying fresh produce, even though it was something I wanted to have in my diet," she says. "I had friends who were participating in farm CSAs and it was a wonderful thing for them. They shared with me sometimes, but I thought, 'I'm never going to be able to afford something like that. A CSA is too out of reach for me.'"

Last spring, the moment Donna saw a post on social media about Michigan Fitness Foundation’s (MFF) Michigan Farm to Family: CSA (MF2FCSA) program for people eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, she called right away to reserve her spot. In Marquette and Alger counties, MF2FCSA connects families experiencing food insecurity with Dukes Farm, a small local farm owned by Gabriel Caplett. The program also has a nutrition education component delivered locally by Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Service Agency (MARESA), one of MFF’s consortium of statewide SNAP-Ed partners.

Produce boxes at a Michigan Farm to Family: CSA pickup at Lakeshore Depot.
The MF2FCSA program is made possible through grant funding MFF received from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP) and through funding from the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed). GusNIP supports projects that bring stakeholders from distinct parts of the food system together to incentivize the purchase of healthy and affordable fresh food to families at the local level. SNAP-Ed teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives through a variety of nutrition and physical activity programs. MFF is a State Implementing Agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the education component of SNAP-Ed and offers grants to organizations like MARESA to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan.

Both are USDA programs. By bringing GusNIP and SNAP-Ed initiatives together, MFF has created a unique program that serves SNAP-eligible Michiganders. It does this by increasing their purchasing power and access to nutritious fruits and vegetables, and by providing nutrition education so they can gain the knowledge and skills that support healthy living.

"Michigan Fitness Foundation’s Farm to Family CSA program is increasing access to delicious, local produce. We're really grateful to Dukes Farm for providing bountiful CSA boxes to our community members," says Rachel Bloch, MARESA's health education consultant. "The real positive is that CSA members are receiving a beautiful box of fresh produce regularly and are finally able to use their SNAP benefits to purchase it."

Produce at a Michigan Farm to Family: CSA pickup at Lakeshore Depot in Marquette.
A 40-acre family farm in Skandia, about 20 miles southeast of Marquette, Dukes Farm also grows food for CSA members in the MF2FCSA program in addition to their regular retail and wholesale customers. Normally sold for $20 per box, MF2FCSA members pay just $5 a week using their SNAP benefits and MFF pays the balance through grant and match grant funds. The program is also convenient as MF2FCSA members can pick up their produce boxes at nearby drop-off locations, at the farm, or have the farm deliver the fresh produce to their homes.

"The Farm to Family CSA program helps boost the local economy here and increase awareness of local food. It brings families together to cook and allows people to try a recipe they've never tried before because they're receiving a new produce item in their box," Bloch says. "It links our families directly with the folks at Dukes Farm, so they know who is growing their food and where food is coming from — and it tastes so good. The quality of the food is phenomenal."

Donna agrees.

"Sometimes, what you get at the grocery store doesn’t have much flavor, and it could be a week or more old – very removed from where that food came from and who grew that food," she says. "There are so many hands between you and that food. When you open that box of food from Gabe that was harvested the night before, only one or two hands were on that food before it reached you. It's such beauty, even the colors. Last week, we got tomatoes, beans, corn, purple cabbage — just a wonderful rainbow of delicious, fresh, local food."

During the pickups, MARESA Nutrition Educator Michelle Granger shares cooking demonstrations using recipes from MFF's Michigan Harvest of the Month™ (MIHOTM™) as well as USDA’s food storage tips and healthy lifestyle strategies.

MARESA Nutrition Educator Michelle Granger (right) talks with a CSA member.
"That's really where we've been able to provide our educational support," Bloch says. "Michelle gives the MF2FCSA members MFF’s Michigan Harvest of the Month™ resources and really encourages them to use all the different produce items in their CSA box."

MIHOTM™ is an MFF program that includes nutrition education materials and recipes highlighting fruits and vegetables. By pairing the MIHOTM™ with the CSA program, participants receive quality nutrition education, recipes, and other cooking resources to make the most of the produce they receive.

MARESA Nutrition Educator Michelle Granger at a Michigan Farm to Family: CSA pickup at Lakeshore Depot.
In 2021, MF2FCSA had shares available for 30 families and individuals in the region. Bloch says efforts are already underway to recruit more people for the 2022 growing season. Membership comes highly recommended from Donna, who says her weekly MF2FCSA pickup is "like opening a box of magic."

"I just get giddy," she says. "That sounds sort of silly, how excited I get. But it's so different from going to the grocery store, where you have no idea where your food is coming from. To have such a connection with the people who are growing the food and putting it in a box for us to cook up, it really is like opening a gift every week."

*The CSA shareholder’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.