Sliding scale pricing brings fresh produce to all

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Hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables will be grown in Ontario this year, but many residents still face barriers to accessing nutritious food. 

It’s a problem some community-supported agriculture (CSA) farmers have found a way to tackle. They are offering flexible payment terms for produce and accepting customer donations to subsidize discounts.

Ann Slater, who grows organic vegetables near St. Marys, started advertising a pay-what-you-can option for her CSA delivery program when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. Her intention was to connect with residents who face financial challenges and give back to the community by accepting what they can afford to pay for weekly produce deliveries. 

Why it matters: Many Ontarians can’t access affordable, nutritious food. Using donations to subsidize discounted prices supports farmers and improves food accessibility.

“As soon as I offered this, people started asking if they could sponsor the pay-what-you-can deliveries,” she says. “Now I have CSA members paying the seasonal amount plus a top up and I work with an organization in town to find people who could use the vegetables.”

While Slater’s customers donate on their own accord, some larger CSA farms have set up a more formal structure to collect donations and offer sliding scale pricing.

New this year, Sleepy G Farm near Thunder Bay is asking CSA members to purchase an access share ($32 to $48), standard share ($40 to $60) or supporter share ($48 to $72) for the summer season. The 20 per cent discount available through the access shares is directly subsidized by the increased cost of the supporter shares. 

“Our intention is to have members select the membership that works for them financially without eligibility criteria or fear of judgment and knowledge that their membership supports not only a local farm but other community members,” reads the online sign-up form. 

The farm also accepts standalone donations and has an application form for people to request a deeper discount than the access share price. 

Angie Koch, owner and farm manager at Fertile Ground Farm in St. Agatha, has been offering pay-what-you-can pricing for years and has streamlined the process. 

“When CSA members sign up for the season, we invite them to make a donation to our community shares fund,” she says. “One hundred per cent of the donations pay for our vegetables to be distributed to households that struggle to access fresh produce.”

Although the fund wasn’t created in response to the pandemic, Koch has seen a significant increase in donations over the last two years. 

Some 400 CSA members collectively donated nearly $15,000 in 2021. In addition to funding discounted shares, this enabled Koch to forge new partnerships and donate fresh produce to three local food bank organizations. 

From a financial management perspective, she set up a model that would cover her costs of production. 

“There’s sometimes an expectation that farmers can donate a lot of food because we’re growing a lot of food,” she says. “But the reality is that most people in rural areas are living on less income than people in urban areas and subsidizing urban poverty with rural poverty would not really be getting us further ahead.”

Koch plans to continue inviting her customers to contribute to the community fund and aims to raise enough to donate even more food this year. 

“My feeling is that there are people out there who want to support both sides, local farmers and the community members who need better access to food,” Slater says.