The produce stand at Coastal Roots farm offered a colorful array of organic fruits and vegetables on Thursday, with heirloom tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and other goods, all at market prices - unless you can't afford it.
In that case, the fresh-picked veggies are available for whatever you can manage. The Encinitas farm, which gained organic certification last month, offers its produce on a pay-what-you-can basis.
"We have a pretty robust vision and our mission is to make sure everyone in our community has access to fresh and healthy food," said Sara Telzer, social enterprise manager for the farm. "We want to make sure anyone who comes to the farm stand is able to take what they need and pay whatever they are able."
The farm stand, located at 441 Saxony Road in Encinitas, is open from 2 to 6 p.m. Thursdays and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays.
The market share for organic food has grown in recent years as consumers concerned about health and the environment have chosen to pay for food grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Organic products are available in nearly 3 out of 4 conventional grocery stores, and account for more than 4 percent of total U.S. food sales, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
However, the price premium on organics can deter some customers. A 2015 investigation by Consumer Reports found that a basket of organic produce fruits, vegetables, meat and milk cost 47 percent more than a comparable selection of conventional food. That's a particular concern for people who struggle to purchase fresh produce of any type, Telzer said.
"Many people might live in what we call food deserts, so they don't have access, and have to drive long distances," to buy groceries, she said. "And then the cost-prohibitive aspect of it is huge as well."
Coastal Roots aims to bridge that price gap by offering food at flexible prices. Customers fill their baskets and cashiers calculate the suggested donation, based on the cost of growing the produce. On Thursday, the suggested donation for lettuce was $3 per bunch. Cucumbers were $3 a pound and strawberries were marked at $4 per basket.
Customers, however, enter the amount they can afford to pay privately on a tablet computer. Most shoppers pay the suggested price, Telzer said. Some pay less, but others chip in more than the requested amount. Coastal Roots also runs monthly farm stands at Vista Community Clinic, which is also pay what you can, and Camp Pendleton, where the produce is free for Marine Corps families.
In the year after the farm stand opened in June 2016, it sold distributed nearly 11,000 pounds of produce, reached around 4,000 individuals, and provided food discounts of about $6,000, Telzer said.
On Thursday, Encinitas resident Raylene Rhodes filled her basket with a selection of vegetables.
"This is really the freshest," Rhodes said. "It's really a perfect example of an urban farm."
Rhodes, a regular shopper at the farm, has spread the word about the farm stand to friends and neighbors who might benefit from the flexible pricing.
"I really think it's awesome," she said. "I know a few single mothers that I've told about this. I was a single mother and I wish I would have had something like this. It's great for the community, and for the elderly, too. People who are on fixed incomes don't buy things like this because they think they can't afford it."
Heidi Prather visited the stand for the first time Thursday with her 8-year-old son, Chase. She said she applauded the pay-what-you can system, but also thought the suggested prices were reasonable.
"It's wonderful that it's kind of a charity too," she said. "I love that it's organic. That's our biggest (priority) for our kids."
The farm gained its organic certification this summer after a three-year process that involves strict guidelines for cultivation and soil maintenance. Its offerings vary with the seasons - tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and lettuce in summer, shifting in the fall to root vegetables and heartier greens, including carrots, beets, chard and kale.
While much of the produce sold in grocery stores is trucked hundreds of miles, the farm stand fare is moved no more than hundreds of feet from the farm where it was harvested, said Daron "Farmer D" Joffe, founding director for Coastal Roots Farm.
"As we get used to shopping on our phones and having no connection and getting further removed from it, this is a way that people can be more intimately connected, not only with their groceries but also with their community," he said.
For Jackson Pease, a Cardiff resident who has shopped at the stand since it opened a year ago, that makes a difference.
"It's nice to meet and get to know the people who are harvesting your vegetables," Pease said. "It tastes way better. And you're supporting the community as well."
Joffe said he aims to expand the hours that the stand is open and the type of produce available - the farm's vineyards and orchards are near maturity, so the stand will offer more fruit in the near future. The farm, which hosts dinners, festivals and field trips, also plans to offer more events and public education programs, in an effort to provide a model of urban farming that can be replicated in every community.
"The trend has been that agriculture gets pushed further and further away from where people are," Joffe said. "The paradigm shift that's happening is how we can preserve agricultural land in a meaningful way in the urban and suburban landscape, so that food is grown and purchased and celebrated where people are."