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The Community Supported Herbal Medicine Movement
ISSUE:
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15-17

When US herbal dietary supplement sales reached an estimated $5 billion last year—a near 5% increase from the previous year— many industry insiders labeled it a sign that the American people have become dissatisfied with the country’s healthcare system and are turning to natural and affordable forms of “self care.”1 Additional movements are also taking place across the country, which further indicate that people are increasingly taking health matters into their own hands.

Farmers’ markets, which continue to pop up in an increasing number of cities and towns, are undeniably part of the massively popular “green” living trend that aims to improve environmental sustainability. But they are also a form of preventative self healthcare, with fresh and healthy food goods that can be the staple of any diet aimed at preventing illness, whether through losing weight, eating vegetarian, or replacing highly processed “junk food” with more whole foods. Doctors in Massachusetts, for example, are now dispensing “prescriptions” for produce bought at farmers’ markets to some of their obese child patients, and 36 states fund farmers’ market nutrition programs for women and children.2

Likewise, Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs) are a newer, yet growing, movement, with more than 1,000 CSAs estimated to exist in the United States and an increasing number dedicated solely to herbal remedies.3 The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a CSA as a “community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production.”4 Members of a CSA, sometimes referred to as shareholders, pre-buy such products as fresh produce, free-range eggs, flowers, or grass-fed beef from the farm, as a way to pledge their financial support to cover the farm’s operating costs. Members obtain their farm goods by picking them up at the farm or a designated pick-up location, or sometimes by having them delivered right to their front door.

Herbal-focused CSAs aim to take the CSA experience beyond a connection to the land into the realm of plant-based healing, wellness, and education. They provide fresh herbs and herbal medicines and products to their members, although each differs in its structure, philosophy, cost, and the products and services it supplies to its members. Some are called by other names, such as herb shares, herb exchanges, Community Supported Medicine (CSM), and Community Supported Herbalism (CSH).

Many herbal CSAs are currently concentrated in the Northeastern United States. Third Root Community Health Center in Brooklyn, New York, for example, is a worker cooperative of healthcare practitioners that offers yoga classes, nutritional consultations, acupuncture, and other holistic medicine services, as well as a CSH program.5

Now in its second season, Third Root’s CSH provides members with herbal remedies every week from June to November. Members have the opportunity to answer health-related questions on their registration form, which Third Root’s herbalists use to tailor each season’s products to address members’ needs, said Jacoby Ballard, an herbalist, yoga instructor, and health educator at Third Root (e-mail, August 11, 2010).

The monthly herb packages include information on the specific herbs and usage instructions, and the herbal remedies focus on that month’s theme, such as the November “breathe” theme that features a calming tea, oil infusion, and lung-centered tincture. Each month, members request a specific fourth herbal remedy, and pick-ups coincide with monthly health education workshops taught by Third Root Herbal Education Program students.

Unlike many CSAs around the country, Third Root’s CSM program is unique in that it functions within an inner-city community and is not based on a single farm. Instead, it depends mainly upon herbs gathered at the nearby Prospect Park and Flatbush Community Garden, and some farms in upstate New York, said Ballard. Additionally, herbs for the CSM are also supplied by Third Root’s “Sponsor an Herb” program, in which community members grow herbs in their backyards, fire escapes, and windowsills, keeping 40% of the herbs for themselves and donating the additional 60% to Third Root, he added.

Third Root’s CSM is based on a sliding pay scale in which members pay according to their income level. Prices start at $100 for a half share (10 installments) and $200 for a full share (20 installments) and increase in increments of $5 to $10 for higher income brackets. “In the CSH program specifically, the sliding scale means that people who couldn’t otherwise afford a full apothecary can build one over a season and that we can have a more diverse membership,” said Ballard. “In Brooklyn, that’s key, as so many immigrant communities have intact herbal traditions but can’t necessarily afford herbal products in stores. Our sliding scale means that we can reach these communities and validate the kind of healthcare they are more familiar with in their home country.” More information is available at: www.thirdroot.org/csh.html.

Across the country, the Sonoma County Herb Exchange provides fresh and dried bulk herbs to its Northwestern California community. The Herb Exchange is not a traditional herbal CSA in that it does not have members or provide monthly herb baskets. Instead, it is a large cooperative of about 25 local herb growers who join to sell their herbs to the public at weekly markets and make all pricing and policy decisions. According to Leslie Gardner, director of the Herb Exchange, the program has about 300 to 400 customers a year who can order from a catalog each week or pre-order their yearly supply of herbs, which are dispensed at their “medicinal peak” (e-mail, July 23, 2010). Most of their customers are medicine makers, manufacturers, and herbalists, and several of their growers have obtained organic certification, including the Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm.

“To my knowledge, there isn’t anything exactly like us anywhere,” said Gardner. “We are locally focused and provide to a lot of local businesses. We are a nonprofit, under the umbrella of the Sonoma County Herb Association, and provide a number of educational classes and events.” More information is available at: www.sonomaherbs.org/herbalexchange.html.

For about 4 years, Goldthread Herbal Apothecary in Florence, Massachusetts has had an herbal CSA in addition to their many other projects.6 According to William Siff, founder and director of Goldthread, the goal in creating the herbal CSA was to establish within the community an understanding that herbal medicine is a foundational part of being a healthy human being and having a healthy family (e-mail, July 21, 2010).

“The CSA movement is a natural vehicle through which to establish the link between herbal medicine and healthy nutritious food— essentially that they are one in the same,” said Siff. “Re-establishing the knowledge and understanding of how to take a somewhat mysterious subject like herbal medicine and bring it back to the kitchen was one of our [main objectives] for starting the CSA.”

The herbs and herbal products supplied to the 75 CSA members come from Goldthread’s herb farm, which was originally created to supply the apothecary but now also supplies the CSA. The farm also provides a hands-on educational opportunity to Goldthread’s interns, who learn how to cultivate, harvest, and process the herbs, and also how to make the finished herbal medicines that are supplied to the CSA and in-town apothecary.

Popular products include Goldthread’s tea blends, elixir combinations such as elderberry/lime (Sambucus canadensis, Caprifoliaceae/ Citrus aurantifolia, Rutaceae) and astragalus root/holy basil (Astragalus membranaceus, Fabaceae/Ocimum tenuiflorum, Lamiaceae), and honeys infused with herbs such as lavender (Lavandula angustifolia, Lamiaceae) flowers and sage (Salvia officinalis, Lamiaceae). Members of Goldthread’s herbal CSA have the opportunity to volunteer on the farm, though it is not a requirement, and they are also invited to participate in the medicine making and essential oil distillation processes. An individual share is $150; a family share is $225; and a deluxe share is $275. (Shares are provided as one large installment at the end of growing season.)

Despite the success of Goldthread’s CSA, running such a farming operation is not easy, and it is one of the many reasons why the numbers of local, organic, or small-scale farms are, though growing, still few. “It is certainly difficult to revive community based agricultural endeavors in terms of financial gain,” said Siff, noting that all profits made from the CSA have been reinvested in the farm. “Smallscale farming by hand is an amazingly labor-intensive process, and even with the tuition from the interns, it is always a challenge to make ends meet.” Despite the obstacles, Goldthread plans to expand into offering culinary herbs and spices to its local cafes and restaurants and to continue exploring new recipes, products, and herbs. More information is available at: www.goldthreadapothecary.com/?p=csa.

“Our feedback has been that there is indeed a growing awareness within our community about the usefulness and necessity of herbal medicine within a grassroots, everyday approach to taking care of ourselves,” said Siff. “People appreciate the freshness and care that goes into our finished products, as well as the education and support that we offer them, so that [herbs] become very accessible and commonplace in the care of their families.”

According to Danica Holoviak, a member of Third Root’s CSA, “It rarely comes into my consciousness to use any pharmaceutical or go to the doctor. I first think, ‘What herb would work for this issue or for this person?,’ and, ‘Can I make this tincture or tea myself?’” (e-mail, August 23, 2010). Holoviak often uses her CSA’s first-aid remedies, the sleep-aide tincture, digestive tea, and lavender essential oil. She recently gave the pain and headache tincture to her sister, who has a torn meniscus in her knee. “Why would you want to go to a doctor who has 15 seconds or less to talk with you and doesn’t listen anyway and then charges you lots of money?” asked Holoviak, adding that hospitals also charge hefty fees and that prescriptions are similarly expensive, as well as commonly associated with side effects.

More information on herbal CSAs and their locations around the country is available through the LocalHarvest database (www.localharvest. org) and in the September issue of HerbalEGram.

—Lindsay Stafford

References

  1. Cavaliere C, Rea P, Lynch ME, Blumenthal M. Herbal supplement sales rise in all channels in 2009. HerbalGram. 2010;86:62-65.

  2. Singer N. Eat an apple (doctor’s orders). New York Times. August 13, 2010; B1.

  3. Vegetable program: community supported agriculture. University of Massachusetts at Amherst website. Available at: www.umassvegetable.org/food_ farming_systems/csa/. Accessed July 13, 2010.

  4. Publications: community supported agriculture. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/csa/csa.shtml. Accessed July 13, 2010.

  5. Appointments. Third Root Community Health Center website. Available at: www.thirdroot.org/appointments.html. Accessed July 14, 2010.

  6. Goldthread Projects 2010. Goldthread Herbal Apothecary website. Available at: www.goldthreadapothecary.com/?p=projects. Accessed August 17, 2010.