It's a partnership that reads like a parable: Invest some talents around springtime, trust the farmer to sow good seed, then bring home the harvest all summer long. Inspired by the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement, churches across the country are replacing the "c" with "congregation," preaching food-system justice and creation care, providing a market for local family farms, and leaving the sanctuary on Sunday mornings with a week's worth of veggies.
Teresa Oliver farms near the Flint Hills in Burlingame, Kansas, and drives to Grace Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Topeka every week. She arranges the bounty of Prairie Rose Farm buffet-style, along with canned goods, fresh bread, and homemade soap. Twenty-five church and community members pay $12 a week to fill their bags. A weekly newsletter describes the day the cow got out or offers a recipe for rhubarb pie. In the fall everyone's invited for a potluck and farm tour.
Margaret Pennings and Dan Guenthner grow 55 different vegetables, fruits, and herbs on the bluffs overlooking the Saint Croix river near Osceola, Wisconsin. A 14-year-old CSA that began with friends at Grace University Lutheran Church has expanded to 220 shares distributed weekly to 11 drop-off sites in the driveways of members' homes. Common Harvest Farm's 40 acres were purchased by the CSA as a conservation easement, and when Margaret and Dan invested to diversify the farm, some members paid up-front for seven years of $450 shares. "Imagine them trusting us for that long!" says Margaret. "When we despair about the world, we look to our members."
KENT AND JENNIFER Davis Sensenig live in an apartment in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and rent their farm, One Iowa Acre (it's actually closer to two), from a farmer outside town. Twice a week they harvest vegetables and load up the Ford Escort. Kent washes and packs the produce in the kitchen of Cedar Falls Mennonite Church, where Jennifer is pastor, and then delivers boxes directly to the front porches of 25 members who pay $275 per year. "It's a no-frills, low-budget operation," according to Kent. He's even saved the high cost of organic certification. "I have a direct connection to my customers," he says, "so they take my word for it that I'm organic."
Mandie Bechtel is the site coordinator for a one-year-old CSA at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. Last season a farmer from a nearby market dropped off 18 produce shares every Saturday. Mandie sorted the veggies, billed customers, provided skeptical members with recipes for celeriac, and hauled leftovers upstairs for clients of the church's prenatal clinic. This year she plans to concentrate on education. "We're all so busy," she says, "but I'd like to direct the members to good Web sites, maybe have a discussion online."
"We have to start asking questions," says Dan Guenthner. "What are our spiritual ties to the land? How is that reflected on our dinner plates?" Every congregation's answers look different. Some churches invite farmers to preach, sponsor CSA shares for low-income neighbors, plant a community garden, or host meals with locally grown ingredients. "I think the potluck could really be transformed," suggests Kent Davis Sensenig. "We could even recover the love feast from the early church and really start to see eating together as part of our discipleship."
"Food's not just what you put in your mouth. It's everything that comes before that," says Bechtel. Congregation supported agriculture is a lot to think about. Moreover, it's a big risk, it takes lots of time, and occasionally you get celeriac for three weeks in a row. As Teresa Oliver puts it, "Sometimes there are new things in the bag. It's not always what you want, but it's liking what you got."
All of which is, come to think of it, a little bit like church.
Bethany Spicher, a former Sojourners intern, was a legislative assistant at the Mennonite Central Committee Washington Office when this article appeared.