To be fair, the produce looked absolutely incredible. Why wouldn’t it? It came from Blue Hill Farm, Dan Barber’s farm and restaurant, which has gained international fame for its commitment to sustainable practices and its bespoke vegetables. In better times, it offers $278-per-person tasting menus (before beverage and tax) sourced from its own and other local farms. Now, like many restaurants around the country, it has become a grocery, offering premade boxes filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, stews and purees, grass-fed milk and cheese, cultured butter, organic eggs, flowers, and meat from cows raised on the farm.
These are not your typical beets-and-too-much-zucchini CSAs. Blue Hill’s “Garde Manger” box features what it calls “essential supplements for your lunch or dinner,” sourced from its pantry: There are handwritten labels on glass bottles of milk! A giant rustic cracker! Yogurt spelled with an “h”! Lardons and whipped liver! It’s a fantasy of sustainability, a glimpse into a future where we all prioritize local farming and pay our farmers directly for an exemplary product. It costs $98.
Blue Hill calls its grocery assortments “to-go boxes,” and like the offerings offered by many restaurants in this moment, they’re sold on an a la carte basis, not as part of subscription-first CSA. Generally, CSA (community-supported agriculture) and farm-share programs are first and foremost about that C — ”community.” The idea is to cut out the middleman and forge direct relationships between people and the farmers who feed them. By subscribing to one “share” of a farmer’s annual crop up front, you guarantee income for the farms you support for the whole season. CSAs have seen an uptick in subscribers since the onslaught of the pandemic. And as dining rooms remain closed or under harsh restrictions, restaurants around the country have been trying to riff on that model, and keep both themselves and their suppliers afloat by selling produce and pantry goods directly to customers.
Restaurants of all price brackets have been engaging in this new business plan, but it’s hard to ignore the sex appeal of the markets and boxes coming at the more upscale restaurants. Republique in LA offered fruit and pastries; there’s bread and popcorn from Brooklyn’s Olmsted, and foraged mushrooms and natural California wine from San Francisco’s Verjus. There’s even a box from the legendary Chez Panisse.
In the Before Times, restaurants like these were not just places to get a great, expensive, and usually well-sourced meal, but sites to be seen doing so. It may not have been the main point for every diner, but it was at least a bonus to be able to say you have the knowledge, the taste, and the money to have been. Now, their proto-CSAs take the trend to a new level — they are an exercise in community, but also a way to make it known — through aggressive Instagramming and sharing on social media — exactly who that community is. It’s groceries for the 1 percent.
Farms and restaurants certainly need support right now. According to a survey, conducted, no less, by Dan Barber through Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a third of independent farmers don’t foresee being able to continue operating by the end of this year. Though some farmers have found success through these restaurants and other CSA programs, they are facing a summer without restaurants operating at full capacity. Part of the appeal of any farm-share box or grocery is the knowledge that you’re doing good by supporting sustainable practices, and paying people fairly for their labor. In a pandemic, that feels newly crucial.
“We had been looking for ways to support restaurants and everything about this appealed, especially Blue Hill produce,” says Lisa, who has twice driven up to Tarrytown from New York City with her husband to pick up their box. Everything she describes sounds like a perfectly curated experience, down to having someone “offering a little aperitif via a long pizza peel each time as you progressed through the line in your vehicle.” Lisa says in general, she’s been putting more of an effort into buying from smaller, independent producers.
But let’s face it: If it were just about the quality of the vegetables, no one would care to name the restaurants. Lisa notes “even a Blue Hill parsnip is still a parsnip.” Part of the appeal is the brand, the experience, or the slight humble-brag of saying that even now, you’re the kind of person who’s in with Chez Panisse, or has access to “the most exclusive produce boxes in NYC.” Instagram is filled with “unboxing” photos unpacking each box, showing its contents in flat-lay, or shots of luxurious meals made with their contents; all iterations of that photo have temporarily replaced the I’m Eating at a Fancy Restaurant ’gram. There’s an added pull of showing off just how beautiful the butter is, how alluringly “ugly” the vegetables, how perfectly the Instagrammer threw together a gorgeous meal with such bounty.
This is not new. Aside from restaurants, there have always been more upscale markets, like Citarella or Dean & DeLuca (RIP). And it’s not to say expensive restaurants aren’t also deserving of support. But while $100 for a box of ethically grown food may not be so exorbitant — eggs are $1 each from Blue Hill, a baguette is $4 from Verjus, a selection of ground meat and sausage from J&E general is $30 — it’s more than what you’d pay at Stop & Shop. And right now, that divide between people who have the luxury of prioritizing ethical food spending and those who do not is incredibly stark. Americans are experiencing unprecedented food insecurity. One in five children isn’t getting enough to eat, lines at food banks stretch for miles, and jobless claims just passed 40 million. Just as most people could never afford these restaurants, most could not afford these groceries.
This divide shouldn’t exist. Paying farmers, fishers, and restaurant workers a living wage shouldn’t mean only the richest have access to thoughtfully grown food. Farmers shouldn’t have to throw away thousands of pounds of crops while the country goes hungry. But it’s hard to get around the fetishization these boxes inspire, and that farm-to-table restaurants inspired before them. At their best, these boxes help farmers and restaurant workers stay afloat, and encourage ethical farming practices. But at their worst, they’re a way for rich people to project their tastes and show off, even if they don’t intend it. Usually those two things are happening at the same time. The very social media posts and word of mouth that boost farmers and workers, alerting others to their existence and the fruits of their labor, also signal the elite access of the poster.
Ultimately, it’s the trap of consumerism as activism. The only way to “do good” under that approach is to buy something, and while that doesn’t hurt, it also doesn’t eradicate the larger problems both the farming and restaurant industries face. You can’t buy your way out of the problems caused by capitalism. Until ethical farming practices become the norm across the country and ethically grown food is truly affordable for everyone, there will be no way around that. Buying the “right” thing will never lead to structural change. But ideally, it can be the first step to reveal just how much more is needed.